Sudan's major floods present first challenge for its new leader
By Eltayeb Siddig and Nafisa Eltahir
WAD RAMLI, Sudan, Sept 10 (Reuters) - In Wad Ramli, a village outside the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, Alsamani Fathalrahman and his neighbours travelled in blue speedboats through flooded streets trying to salvage their belongings.
"In just five hours, the area was completely flooded, with no prior notice, so people could only save themselves," Fathalrahman said, as the 27-year-old engineer recovered bed frames and school books from abandoned homes.
The flooding that has killed scores of people and destroyed more than 100,000 homes is the first crisis to test Sudan’s new prime minister, the African country’s first civilian leader in 30 years.
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s August 21 inauguration raised hopes that the new civilian-led government would mean a fresh approach, including being more responsive to the needs of the Sudanese people.
But Hamdok is hamstrung by an economy crippled by debt and a legacy of under investment in infrastructure that has exacerbated the flood crisis.
The communities hit by the floods, which started in July, have been mostly left to fend for themselves or rely on aid with little help from authorities, just as they did under the previous regime, according to residents, community groups and charity workers.
"The civilian government is right now an abstract notion," said Magdi El Gizouli, a Sudanese academic based in Germany and fellow of the Rift Valley Institute, a non-profit research organization. "It will emerge eventually but whether it can exercise power is a totally different story."
The prime minister’s office and the military declined to comment on the flood response.
The flood crisis comes at a time of huge transition for Sudan, as months of protests ushered in a transitional government that must also tackle a full-blown economic crisis and internal conflicts, issues that helped bring down the three-decade rule of Omar al-Bashir.
Hamdok's cabinet was sworn in on Sunday; civilian state governors are yet to be appointed.
In an interview with Reuters days after his inauguration, Hamdok said the flood situation required “immediate and strategic intervention” and that “the government must put in place solutions and plans to ensure that the harm to citizens from floods and rains does not repeat.”
He has announced the formation of a task force to focus on the flood-relief effort and said Sudan should follow the lead of other countries by building damns, channels and other ways to make use of the water.
During a visit to Wad Ramli in late August, Hamdok was interrupted by chants from residents demanding that they be resettled to avoid a repeat of situation in the future.
"I hear you very well," he responded. "Together we will execute this resettlement plan. You have to help us with suggestions."
Under the power-sharing arrangement between the military council and the main opposition coalition, Hamdok will head a transitional government for just over three years, until an election.
But the formation of the government, which was supposed to be in place by the end of last month, was repeatedly delayed due to political wrangling over cabinet appointments as well as months of negotiations between the military and the main opposition coalition.
Hamdok has apologized for the delay.
That has left a void for the country’s most powerful paramilitary group, the large and well-financed Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to fill in terms of the flood response, said academic Gizouli.
RSF commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is known as Hemedti, is seen by analysts as the most powerful member of the newly-established sovereign council, the joint military-civilian body that oversees to the prime minister and the cabinet. The RSF has also been accused by protesters and rights groups of involvement in killing demonstrators, something Hemedti has previously denied.
The military has supplied some flood assistance, including mattresses and tents, according to state media and residents.
Help has instead come from charities and international organizations like the United Nations, including medical supplies and transport, according to residents and the organizations. Gulf countries including Kuwait and Qatar have also provided assistance.
Khartoum-based charity Nafeer has provided tents, mosquito nets, food, toiletries, and construction equipment to flood hit areas across the country, according to Ghazi Elrayah, a volunteer with the charity who focuses on external communication.
The response from the authorities has been “very weak. It hasn’t really changed this year,” said Elrayah. “We do the emergency relief for this country. What we are doing is not a permanent solution,” Elrayah added.
Joining the flood-relief effort across Khartoum are what are known as neighbourhood resistance committees that had previously focused on mobilizing communities to join the anti-Bashir protests that led to his ouster.
The committees are helping distribute supplies they have received largely through donations, and are working with groups like Nafeer, which has provided equipment to dig ditches.
That includes neighbourhoods in the region known as Khartoum’s “southern belt” that have been particularly hard hit because of the large number of slums, which are easily demolished by the floods.
A member of one of the committees there, who wished to be identified only by his last name Osman due to security concerns, said the committee had approached local authorities, hoping for supplies and equipment to help dig ditches.
"We didn't get anything from them. Nothing, no aid," Osman said. He added that the committees are now focusing on battling waterborne illnesses like malaria, which are spreading as a result of the flooding.
Mohamed Ali Alshareef, general manager for the Jebel Awlia local authority that includes the southern belt, said the authority provided some tents, pesticides and drainage services but that the political changes had impacted its finances.
“The situation was above our capacity," he said.
(Reporting by Eltayeb Siddig in Wad Ramli and Nafisa Eltahir in Dubai. Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz Editing by Ulf Laessing and Cassell Bryan-Low)
((Nafisa.Eltahir@thomsonreuters.com; +20 109 4966 335;))