Southerners arrive from Khartoum in the southern town of Aweil; the UN says more than 55,000 southerners living in northern Sudan have returned to the south in the past two months, in advance of the south's independence referendum.

Preparing for the Worst in Southern Sudan

JUBA, Sudan—The UN’s humanitarian wing in the Southern Sudanese capital has been hard at work for the past several months on contingency plans for various scenarios related to the south’s January 9 independence referendum and its aftermath. This is an event that—let’s face it—could either go relatively smoothly with few humanitarian consequences or, alternately, could cause significant violence which would be accompanied by mass population movements, food shortages, and destruction of the already weak infrastructure in Southern Sudan.

I recently obtained some of these draft documents. While I won’t post any of the U.N.’s provisional numerical estimates on possible population movements within or outside of the country,  I wanted to share a few of snippets from the plans which illustrate how the UN is conducting its planning for the worst case scenarios related to the south’s January independence referendum:

– The UN is, “in consultation with the southern government,” literally preparing for the worst, based on the assessment that “during the referendum period and its aftermath, a number of unprecedented risks are likely to emerge.”

-UN agencies such as the World Food Program are “pre-prepositioning the six core pipelines” (“food, nutrition, non-food items and emergency shelter, emergency medical kits, seeds and tools, and water, sanitation and hygienge supplies”) which would be activated to “mitigate the impact of conflict by providing humanitarian assistance and protection to victims.”

-As one of the contingency planning draft documents notes, the still-basic state of government services and infrastructure in some places in the Afghanistan-sized territory of Southern Sudan means that if there is conflict associated with the referendum, “as the conflict drags out, local level government structures will become inoperative and social service delivery and trade will be seriously disrupted.”

-In activating an emergency humanitarian response to some of the remote “flashpoint” areas where conflict is likely to spark, the operational constraints facing humanitarian actors will reach beyond the everyday problem in Southern Sudan of underdeveloped infrastructure. Insecurity, interference by armed groups, and capacity gaps related to this instability (if some NGOs opt to evacuate staff) are a few more of the likely challenges.

While these details may not be revelatory, they do illustrate the scope and scale of the humanitarian response that would be launched should “worst case scenarios” occur in the aftermath of Southern Sudan’s referendum. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst…