South Sudan faces ‘concrete’ famine risk and needs urgent help, warn experts

The Guardian

Food security analysis highlights need for immediate action to ward off threat of starvation as difficulty of reaching conflict-wracked areas begins to tell.

Liz Ford

A man in South Sudan’s conflict-ridden Upper Nile state places his hand on parched soil. Restricted access to areas affected by fighting has raised fears of a possible famine. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA
A man in South Sudan’s conflict-ridden Upper Nile state places his hand on parched soil. Restricted access to areas affected by fighting has raised fears of a possible famine. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA

Famine in parts of South Sudan could be just weeks away unless urgent action is taken to address humanitarian needs.

In its latest assessment of food security in the country, published on Thursday, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) warned that there is a “concrete risk of famine occurring between October and December” unless more assistance is provided and access is given to aid agencies to reach affected areas.

Four counties in Unity State are among those principally at risk of famine, while Jonglei and Upper Nile states are also areas of concern. All three states have been wracked with conflict since December 2013, when a power struggle broke out between Salva Kiir, the South Sudanese president, and his former vice-president Riek Machar. The violence has left tens of thousands dead and displaced more than 2 million people. It has also shattered the nascent country’s economy.

Aid agencies have been  warning for months of difficulties in delivering assistance to these areas.

The latest peace deal, signed in August, has not had the desired impact, with each side accusing the other of failing to honor their side of the agreement. Peace talks resumed in Ethiopia on Wednesday and are expected to continue until Monday.

The IPC said an estimated 3.9 million people are now in urgent need of assistance, 30,000 of whom in Unity State are estimated to be living in extreme conditions. The IPC pointed out that, while there is insufficient data available to declare a famine, volatile conditions in the country have obstructed access, making timely analysis difficult.

“There is a great concern that famine may exist in the coming months but it may not be possible to validate it at that time due to lack of evidence as the result of limited access to the affected areas and populations,” said the IPC report.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN children’s agency Unicef, and the World Food Program said the parties to the conflict must grant urgent and unrestricted access to Unity State to prevent starvation.

“This is the start of the harvest and we should be seeing a significant improvement in the food security situation across the country, but unfortunately this is not the case in places like southern Unity State, where people are on the edge of a catastrophe that can be prevented,” said the WFP country director Joyce Luma. “The people of South Sudan need peace, nutritious food and other humanitarian assistance and livelihood support to survive and rebuild their lives.”

Jonathan Veitch, Unicef representative in South Sudan, added: “Since fighting broke out nearly two years ago, children have been plagued by conflict, disease, fear and hunger. Their families have been extraordinary in trying to sustain them, but have now exhausted all coping mechanisms. Agencies can support, but only if we have unrestricted access. If we do not, many children may die.”

Acute malnutrition levels among children under the age of five is now above the emergency threshold in the conflict-affected states, as well as in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Warrap.

The agencies said that people living in states not directly affected by the conflict are struggling with erratic rainfall, fewer livelihood opportunities, high food prices, fuel costs and inflation in what has become a “generally degraded economic environment” nationwide.

In a statement, the government of South Sudan warned against the “irresponsible” use of the word famine, but acknowledged the IPC’s findings. It urged a scaling up of efforts to prevent further deterioration.

The government also reiterated its commitment to the peace process, saying it was “working hard to[wards] securing a lasting peaceful solution to the ongoing political crisis, so that humanitarian and development work may continue. We are also fully committed to ensuring enhanced trade in all areas of the country, uninterrupted access for humanitarian aid and an enabling environment for people to return to their homes to rebuild and recover their livelihoods.”
Zlatko Gegic, Oxfam’s South Sudan country director, said aid workers do not have enough funding to respond to the crisis. The UN country appeal for 2015 is only 55% funded.

“Donors must urgently release funding for emergency food aid to save lives and help avert a devastating crisis,” he said.

“Donors should fund programs that help people rebuild their lives, such as agricultural and fishing support, rehabilitating markets and developing other livelihoods.

“This unbearable suffering will only end if the peace agreement holds, fighting stops immediately and the long process of reconciliation begins.”