Men built a barrier to protect their houses from rising water in Khartoum, Sudan, during the last week of August 2013. More than 300,000 people were directly affected by the flooding, and dozens died. Photo: Reuters

By ISMA’IL KUSHKUSH
29 August 2013

KHARTOUM, Sudan (The New York Times) – Their temporary headquarters are a beehive of young volunteers buzzing in and out of rooms, up and down stairs, carrying bags of donated food, medicine, and large packets of plastic sheets.

“What happened to your house?” one volunteer asks on the phone, as others load aid on trucks or create maps and charts on laptops. “And where do you say you are? We’ll have a team out there soon.”

They are the members of Nafeer, a volunteer, youth-led initiative that responded swiftly to the humanitarian crisis caused by heavy rains and flash floods that struck Sudan this month.

The deluge has taken a heavy toll. Beyond the dozens of people killed, more than 300,000 people have been directly affected, with 74,000 homes damaged or destroyed, according to the United Nations. The spread of diseases like malaria is also reported to be on the rise.

The impact of the heavy rains and floods has been felt in most of Sudan, including the camps for displaced people in the war-torn region of Darfur. In one case, six United Nations peacekeepers were swept away by a current. Four are still missing.

But the area around Khartoum, the capital, suffered the hardest blow. More rain is expected, and as the Nile and the Blue Nile rise to record levels, many fear the worst is yet to come.

“We saw that the heavy rains and floods were going to impact the lives of many, and we felt we had a social responsibility to help people,” said Muhammad Hamd, 28, a Nafeer spokesman. “The idea came out of a discussion on Facebook among friends.”

A “nafeer” is a Sudanese social tradition that comes from an Arabic word meaning “a call to mobilize.” The group’s formation was all the more important because the Sudanese government was slow to respond, some critics say.

“It was a weak response,” said Khalid Eltigani, the executive editor of Ilaf, a weekly newspaper. “The Nafeer youth broke the silence on the flood situation.”

Government officials said that the level of rain this year had surpassed their expectations, but they maintained that matters were under control.

“There is no need to declare a state of emergency,” said Sudan’s interior minister, Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid.

Mark Cutts, the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan, described the situation as a “huge disaster,” which his agency called the worst floods in 25 years. Aid has arrived from United Nations agencies, Qatar, the United States, Japan, Egypt, Ethiopia and others.

The rainy season started late this year in Sudan, but when it arrived, it came with a vengeance.

“We can attribute this to climate change,” said Nagmeldin Elhassan of the Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources, a government agency. […]

On a trip to one flooded area east of Khartoum, a team of 20 Nafeer volunteers, men and women, mounted two four-wheel-drive vehicles and a pickup truck loaded with bags of food, plastic tarps and sandbags.

Both sides of the highway leading east from Khartoum were crammed with families seeking refuge. The road itself is elevated, sitting above the flooded areas flanking it, so families dragged their mattresses, suitcases and other belongings to the highway’s edge, desperate for help. An old woman sat on a stool, her head lying on her fist, waiting. Behind her was a puddle of water where a donkey lay dead.

At the Nafeer volunteers’ first stop, several families went to meet them. Ahmad Sadig, 65, enthusiastically explained what had happened.

“The night it rained, it didn’t stop, and it was windy,” he said. “My daughter had just given birth a couple of weeks before.”

His daughter, Zainab Sadig, 26, continued. “Then a wall fell, and a stream of water came in,” she said. “I carried my baby and ran.”

Mr. Sadig said he called the local authorities the day after. “But no one answered the phone,” he said. “At least these Nafeer guys answer the phone.” [more]

As Floods Ravage Sudan, Young Volunteers Revive a Tradition of Aid

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