LONDON, June 5 - A huge operation to tackle the world's worst unfolding humanitarian crisis will swing into action today following a warning that up to 300,000 people in Sudan could die within months even if essential aid gets through.
The United Nations will launch a 90-day emergency programme after securing promises of funds from the US and other countries at a conference in Geneva.
The UN yesterday described a developing catastrophe in the region of Darfur and said the relief effort was crucial "to avoid massive death and starvation".
International aid agencies blame the scale of the crisis on the neglect of the international community and the obstruction by the Sudanese government of aid efforts.
About 1.2 million people, who fled their villages after being terrorised by government-armed Arab militia, are living in makeshift camps in Darfur and 100,000 in neighbouring Chad. The flow of refugees to the border with Chad was continuing yesterday.
Andrew Natsios, head of USaid, a government agency, told the conference, which was held in private: "If we get relief in, we could lose a third of a million. If we do not, it could be a million."
The urgency is because of the start of the rainy season. The first rains fell this week on Mugjir in the south of the country, bringing with it the threat of polluted water supplies, disease and malnutrition.
Mr Natsios said his predictions were based on mortality and malnutrition rates compiled recently in Sudan.
The UN asked the US and other countries at Geneva for £128m. The US promised £102m over 18 months and other countries made pledges.
Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, admitted the response to the crisis had been too slow and a further £60m was needed for the remainder of this year.
"This is no wish list. This is exactly what it would take to avoid massive death and starvation," he told Reuters in an interview yesterday. "If we don't get it all, so many people will perish. It is as dramatic as that."
The UN plans to spend the money raised at Geneva over the next three months on:
• feeding 1 million people;
• drilling boreholes and providing water pumps and tanks for the camps;
• providing basic health care for 90% of the displaced;
• helping the displaced build temporary shelters;
• distributing seeds and tools to 78,000 families;
• deploying ceasefire monitors and human rights observers.
The rainy season will hamper the humanitarian effort as travel will become increasingly difficult and airdrops will have to be used in many places.
Britain is taking a lead in trying to get the Sudanese government to lift bureacratic obstacles preventing humanitarian agencies moving freely into Darfur.
Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, will visit Khartoum tomorrow to press the Sudanese to end a system of permits required for internal travel for humanitarian agencies. He will also ask Customs to lift blocks on aid. The Sudanese government denies responsibility for the crisis in Darfur, but western governments claim it initially armed the Arab militia apparently to suppress a rebellion and created a monster.
An estimated 30,000 people have been killed in the present bout of fighting. The US, Britain and others are calling on the Sudanese government to disarm the militia.
In an effort to tackle the militia and try to restore some security, the pan-continental African Union sent 10 monitors to Khartoum on Tuesday to oversee a shaky ceasefire agreed in April. They are due to deploy in Darfur this weekend, with a further 110 to follow.
Britain is to meet the £2m start-up costs of the observer force and expects the EU to provide a further £10m. The EU is also to complement the monitors with six military observers. Six human rights observers are also to be sent in. They will initially do without a back-up force to provide pro tection but African countries will provide one if necessary.
Annette Weber, an Amnesty researcher who attended the Geneva conference on her way back from compiling evidence at the refugee camps in Chad, said there had been a systematic campaign against the civilian population in Darfur, including mass executions and aerial bombardment.
Amnesty is to publish her report next month concentrating on violence against women, especially widespread rape.
She agreed with Mr Natsios' assessment of the potential death toll. She said: "There are 350,000 people who are most likely to die in this period [the rainy season]."
But some involved in the relief work cautioned against hyperbole. One said it was normal for the UN and aid agencies to exaggerate in order to secure donations.
He said the death toll would be much lower if aid gets through, noting that most of the displaced had already survived a year in the camps.