South Sudan: Conflict brings famine as communities are left behind

Nyatoig Kuany holds 1-year-old Nyageka Mayak, who is suffering from acute malnutrition, outside a nutrition center in Ngop, Unity state, South Sudan. (Credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran/NRC)

The famine in South Sudan, unlike those created by drought in other parts of East Africa, is man-made.

Anywhere from 100,000 to nearly 300,000 people in the region are believed to be facing starvation due to an ongoing civil war. The conflict has forced them to flee their communities, leaving behind crops or livestock, to hide in areas lacking food, and sometimes even water.

As a consequence, many South Sudanese have had to take desperate measures to stave off hunger, according to a press release this week from the Norwegian Refugee Council. In Unity State – one of the most affected by conflict in South Sudan – the situation is becoming particularly dire.

“About 40 percent of the people in Amothic are eating tree leaves. About half of the village are eating their seed stocks too,” Deng Yel Piolthe, village chief of Amothic village in Unity State, told the Norwegian Refugee Council.

With no seed to plant in coming seasons, Piolthe’s community can be expected to only plunge further into famine.

“Children are suffering because there is not enough food to eat. Some of the children have diarrhea from eating the leaves,” Bhakita Abuk Deng in Amothic village told the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Children are especially vulnerable among the 270,000 severely malnourished across the country. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that more than 4.8 million people in South Sudan will face severe food shortages in the coming months.

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This is the worst famine on record for Unity State. Aid agencies warn that many other regions are on the precipice, technically in a ‘crisis phase’ or ‘emergency phase’ of food security – one level below famine.

The crisis is exacerbated by the brutal civil war embroiling the country, which makes it difficult for aid and relief agencies to reach stricken communities.

“The biggest challenge for us in Unity is access, and that is caused by the conflict. And without that humanitarian assistance, the most vulnerable may not survive,” Save the Children’s South Sudan country director, Pete Walsh, told Humanosphere.

Communities like Mayendit are actively targeted by both sides. Just last month, aid workers were abducted from the town in northern South Sudan. Conflict has devastated the livelihoods of farmers in the region, exacerbating the crisis.

“I visited Mayendit in Southern Unity this week, and it’s a prime example of a man-made disaster. It was once known as the ‘safe haven’ of Unity state, but was engulfed by conflict in February, which resulted in lifesaving health facilities, including a hospital for highly malnourished sick children, being burnt to the ground,” Walsh said.

“Homes and aid agencies’ compounds were also looted and destroyed,” he added.

For NGOs working in South Sudan, this has become an all too common feature of the most recent conflict in the country, which started in 2013.

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Aid agencies remain on high alert since opposition forces targeted a compound in the capital Juba last July.

With aid workers frequently targeted and continued fighting causing difficulties in accessing the most affected communities, aid agencies are pleading for both sides to again attempt to negotiate a peace deal or at least a temporary truce that will allow them to provide food, water and other assistance to the displaced.

“Save the Children calls for all parties to support unimpeded, unfettered access to enable humanitarians to save the lives of the most vulnerable. But ultimately, what South Sudan needs is peace and quickly,” Walsh warned.

The conflict has driven millions of South Sudanese into neighboring countries such as Kenya and Uganda, which is bearing the brunt of South Sudanese fleeing their country.

Aid agencies are pleading for $1.6 billion toward relief efforts South Sudan, which is currently less than 20 percent funded.

“International donors need to provide more funding for emergency aid for South Sudan to stop the famine and food crisis escalating,” Rehana Zawar, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s South Sudan country director, said in the statement.

“We have a catastrophe occurring right before our eyes, and the time to act and stop this crisis from spreading is now.”

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com