GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations relies so heavily on outside groups to deliver aid in Darfur that Sudan's expulsion of 16 non-governmental organisations has paralysed as much as half of its programmes, officials said on Tuesday.
While the World Food Programme, World Health Organisation and UNICEF were not among those ordered out after a Hague court issued a war crimes warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the U.N. agencies lost a lot of manpower when their aid partners were shut down last week.
The expelled groups -- whose computers, cars and equipment were also confiscated by Sudanese authorities -- employed 6,500 aid workers in Darfur, where 4.7 million people rely on foreign assistance for food, shelter and protection from fighting.
"Roughly 50 percent of aid delivery is affected," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters in Geneva. "The expulsions will have immediate effects for some distributions, and in the coming weeks for others."
Bashir said the 13 foreign and three local NGOs were closed because they "threatened the security of Sudan" and helped the International Criminal Court issue his arrest warrant for crimes against humanitary and war crimes in Darfur.
The expelled groups, including Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres, deny his claim and have warned that Darfuris made homeless by almost six years of conflict could face devastation if aid programmes are not restarted quickly.
Sudan says it is looking at how to get the warrant suspended or quashed.
U.N. agencies said they could not fill the gap left by their NGO partners who handed out food aid, monitored for disease outbreaks, and provided clean water and health care across Darfur, a remote region roughly the size of France.
Four of the shuttered NGOs -- CARE International, Save the Children U.S., Action Contre La Faim and Solidarites -- had distributed a third of the World Food Programme's aid in Darfur, regularly reaching 1.1 million people in 130 locations.
"The WFP and other humanitarian agencies do not have the capacity to fill such a large gap," spokeswoman Emilia Casella told reporters. "Unless NGOs can operate normally, people will go hungry, thirsty, and growing numbers of sick and malnourished will go untreated."
Vaccination programmes and efforts to detect outbreaks of measles, cholera, and malaria in Darfur will also be interrupted due to the NGO expulsions, according to Fadela Chaib of the World Health Organisation. "Their absence will weigh very heavily on many programmes," she said.
And UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said many aid groups had been working in parts of Darfur that are now not accessible to the U.N. agencies, raising risks that needy people will not get further assistance.
Although Sudan's ambassador to the U.N. said last week that his government would have no problem filling in any gaps in aid distribution due to the expulsions, officials have questioned whether the African state has the capacity to do so.
Byrs said on Tuesday that without a quick return of the NGOs, some 1.5 million people in Darfur will lack health care, 1.6 million will lose safe drinking water and hygiene services, and hundreds of thousands will risk inadequate shelter and other problems with the coming onset of Sudan's rainy season.
Three joint teams of U.N. and Sudanese government experts are scheduled to survey conditions in Darfur on Wednesday to assess the impact of the aid groups' expulsion, she said.
The WFP is planning an unusual one-off distribution of two months' worth of food to areas previously served by the NGOs, spokeswoman Casella said. But she warned that it would be difficult to ensure that food is handed out evenly and fairly.