JUBA, South Sudan -- The World Food Program estimates that as many as a half million people could be forced to flee Sudan if the government in Khartoum does not allow humanitarian aid into the country, while a top U.S. official said Monday that a humanitarian crisis is looming.
World Food Program Deputy Executive Director Ramiro Lopes da Silva said WFP is in talks with the government in Khartoum to allow its aid workers into the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, which lie on the border with South Sudan. An estimated 80,000 people have fled armed rebellion and hunger in the two states and are now in South Sudan.
Sudan is battling the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North, a branch of a guerrilla movement which has fought various regimes in Khartoum for decades. SPLM-North was once part of South Sudan's ruling party during a long running civil war between Sudan's north and south.
South Sudan became the world's newest country last July. Citing security concerns, Khartoum has refused to allow humanitarian aid agencies into the region.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said Monday that aid groups must be allowed in to Blue Nile and South Kordofan to avert a humanitarian crisis. He said that it's extremely important that humanitarian concerns be addressed.
Lopes said Khartoum is willing to allow humanitarian access to the two states "under a certain set of conditions which we have not accepted." He said Khartoum would not allow Sudanese citizens to be involved in the operations.
Da Silva said the World Food Program is planning for a "worst-case scenario" to assist anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 refugees in South Sudan should the talks fail.
The main catalyst of the potential influx is a deepening food crisis spurred by erratic rains in Sudan and instability due to the violence.
But according to WFP, things are not much better in South Sudan. In addition to the refugees along the border, an estimated 120,000 people have been affected by recent tribal violence in the volatile state of Jonglei.
In the face of these challenges, WFP estimates that the country's cereal deficit will be at least 440,900 tons (400,000 metric tons) in 2012.
WFP also estimates that about 2.7 million people – around 30 percent of South Sudan – will need food aid this year. That estimate does not include refugees that are continuing to flee from Sudan. About 1,000 people a day are crossing into South Sudan, he said.
Da Silva said the assistance will cost an estimated $250 million dollars, of which around $90 million has already been provided. But Da Silva said the lack of roads throughout the country and the coming rainy season mean WFP will not be able to provide aid for the rest of the year if their operations are not fully funded by May.
"Come the beginning of the rainy season we need to have pre-positioned all the food we require basically for the rest of the year until end of November," he said.
South Sudan is unlikely to be able to meet the funding gap. The country is currently engaged in a bitter oil dispute with Sudan. South Sudan has accused Sudan of stealing $815 million worth of crude oil since December. Negotiations between the two countries over the separation of their once unified oil industry have failed to produce agreement, prompting Sudan to begin levying oil exported by South Sudan through pipelines in Sudan.
In response, South Sudan has ordered a complete shutdown of its oil production. South Sudan now says it will not resume production until the two countries agree on a host of issues leftover from their civil war including the demarcation of the border and the return of the Abyei region, which both countries claim.
While the two countries are locked in a dangerous stalemate, millions of lives could be at risk.
"What you have now is a sense of urgency," says WFP's da Silva. "In a couple of months we are on what is typically the hunger season both in Sudan and Southern Sudan and obviously the impact on those populations is potentially very serious. The window for an effective intervention with the populations where they are is narrowing."
Associated Press reporter Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.