Restricted aid access pushes parts of South Sudan back to the brink of famine

Some of the around 900 displaced people who have taken refuge sleep under only mosquito nets in the open because there are not enough tents, in Kok Island, Unity State, South Sudan. (Credit: AP Photo/Jason Patinkin)

Hunger is once again a concern in South Sudan. A 2-year-old civil war leaves nearly 4 million people severely food insecure, according to U.N. humanitarian agencies. And the fighting forces are limiting the ability for aid to reach some of South Sudan’s most vulnerable people. The situation is similar to last year when aid groups warned of a potential famine.

“We hold grave concerns for the estimated 30,000 people experiencing extreme and dangerous hunger levels in war-ravaged Unity State, where, despite the peace deal, fighting continues to cut people off from aid,” said Zlatko Gegic, Oxfam’s South Sudan country director, to the media in late October.

It is estimated that another 10,000 people will suffer from acute hunger by December. The overall number of people food insecure accounts for roughly 1 out of every 3 South Sudanese – an increase of 80 percent from last year. The United States and European Union warned on Friday that fighting in northern Unity State hampers the ability to get aid to people in need. Aid groups struggle to operate in the region due to insecurity, leaving affected families with few resources to get by.

A joint release by the World Food Program, UNICEF, and the Food and Agriculture Organization said that unrestricted humanitarian access is needed to prevent famine in parts of Unity State. Fighting across the country has displaced more than 2 million people from their homes. The majority are still in South Sudan and did not seek shelter from the U.N. It means they must make do away from their homes – a situation where food, water, shelter and other assistance is crucial.

“Since fighting broke out nearly two years ago, children have been plagued by conflict, disease, fear and hunger,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF representative in South Sudan, in a news release. “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.”

A campaign in neighboring Warrap State aims to screen an estimated 250,000 children for malnutrition. Those showing signs will be directed to nutrition treatments centers. The 240 community volunteers will go to homes throughout the state to screen and help educate families on nutrition, hygiene and sanitation. It will hopefully reach many of the 26,000 acutely malnourished children in the state.

It is evidence of what is possible, in spite of the civil war, when aid groups can work in relative safety. Prior ceasefire agreements between opposing groups have been short-lived. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of South Sudanese are facing dire straits.

“Livelihoods have been severely affected by high inflation rates, market disruption, conflict-related displacement, and loss of livestock and agricultural production,” said Serge Tissot, the head of FAO in South Sudan. “In addition, looking forward to the completion of the 2015 cropping season by the end of the year, a below average cereal production is expected in Uganda the Sudan and Ethiopia, which will further aggravate the food import bill in South Sudan.”

This time last year saw strong warnings of potential famine in South Sudan. The reasons were essentially the same – fighting displaced people, wrecked the economy and made life worse. Little has changed over the past year, making for another worrying stretch. The dire predictions were not realized last year, but faced with the same outlook again, famine is a real possibility for some parts of South Sudan.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.