Fighting worsens as South Sudan keeps famine at bay, for now

A family of the Nuer ethnic group seeking medication and food, but who were planning to later return to their village in a Nuer rebel-controlled area, walk through flooded areas to reach a makeshift camp for the displaced. (AP Photo/Matthew Abbott)

The cycle continues. South Sudan has once again traveled to the brink of famine only to see it reversed. A projected famine for early 2015 has been “temporarily averted,” said a senior official with the World Food Programme. The turnaround is due to better-than-expected crop harvests, rain and the success of food aid. However, as the past year has shown, hunger looms over the country that saw a political crisis descend into violence nearly a year ago.

“The amount of food that will be available at household level would be exhausted by December or January and that means you will have a substantial number of people who would go without food as of January up to March based on the projections and indicators that we are collecting,” said WFP’s South Sudan deputy country director, Eddie Rowe, to Reuters.

The insecurity and displacement caused by the fighting leaves 1.5 million people at emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity until the end of the year. For example, some 13,200 people living north of Renk in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State are cut off from assistance, according to the NGO Medair.

“Hundreds of people have left behind their livelihoods, livestock and crops due to the insecurity – their only sources of food. Now they are surviving on food given to them by families who are hosting them,” said Nadine Eriksson, Medair’s Nutrition Project Manager. “Rates of malnutrition were beyond emergency thresholds in Renk even before the recent fighting.”

Fighting in Bentiu, a key oil town in the north of South Sudan, is drawing concerns that the country will see an increase in combat in the near future. Peace negotiators attempted to restart talks in Ethiopia, in response to the fighting. There has been little progress between the two fighting groups; supporters of President Salva Kiir and supporters of former vice president Riek Machar. The fighting left thousands dead and 3.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N.

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Warnings in April said 3.7 million people were at risk of severe hunger. An appeal for more money was made, but things did not get better. By July the warnings escalated to potential famine. Oxfam said famine was a “serious risk” if immediate action were not taken.

A bit of luck, thanks to rain, and an improved international response appeared to have worked. By late September the South Sudanese government issued a statement explaining that there was going to be no famine. There were still concerns about overall food security at the time, but the potential for crisis appeared to have ended. That changed not long after, but nearly a month later the story is that famine is not coming to South Sudan. Yet, malnutrition remains worryingly high.

Nearly 1 million children under five will experience severe and acute malnutrition, according to the U.N. It estimates that roughly 50,000 of those children will die if they do not receive food therapy and treatment. After improving in the past few months, food insecurity is getting worse, but not as bad as was anticipated. According to the latest U.N. situation report on South Sudan:

“Despite some improvements in food security, the prevalence of global acute malnutrition was projected to remain above the emergency level (15 percent) in most parts of the country. Though up to 60,000 severely malnourished children have received treatment since the start of the year, the lives of tens of thousands of children are still threatened. High levels of acute malnutrition are attributed to inadequate food consumption as well as other factors including morbidity, and constrained health and nutrition service delivery.”

Nearly 2 million people in South Sudan have fled their homes in the past year. The ongoing conflict in the country puts these people and millions more in the country at risk. While famine has been averted, again, the cycle will likely continue as long as South Sudan cannot return to peace.

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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.