Civil war worsens food crisis in South Sudan

Civil war worsens food crisis in South Sudan

The situation is serious and if action not taken immediately, the consequences could be dire.

At the beginning of the rainy season every year, Nyaaker Onwar, 34, would plant the sorghum and vegetables, while her husband and eldest son herded the cows and caught fish from the White Nile. They ate what they produced, and when the harvest was bountiful, they sold the rest in a nearby market town. This year, things are different.

In February, armed men looted their cows, burned their fishing boat and kidnapped some of their relatives. Ms Onwar fled with her husband and seven children to this village through rain and deep mud. She has been here for weeks with thousands of people displaced by South Sudan’s civil war. When she arrived, she was hungry, with no money and few options. “We had to sell our clothes to buy food,” she said.Five months of war in South Sudan has led to the deaths of thousands and the displacement of more than one million people. But officials warn that the tragedy could just be beginning. A serious food crisis is looming over the country, and the United Nations says that if action is not taken immediately, the consequences could be dire.

“There is every likelihood that the worst food crisis in South Sudan’s history can happen,” said Hilde Johnson, chief of the United Nations mission in South Sudan. “This can involve a famine of significant proportions.” The civil war erupted in December, when clashes broke out between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar. The conflict soon took on an ethnic dimension, pitting South Sudan’s two largest groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, against each other. Kiir is a Dinka, while Machar is a Nuer.

So many people have been displaced by the fighting that the planting season was disrupted, creating major concerns about the next harvest. Fishermen cannot work the rivers. Livestock have been lost and abandoned. Cholera has broken out in the capital, Juba, and threatens other parts of the county.

Here in Wau Shiluk in Upper Nile State, the consequences of war are being seen, with malnutrition on the rise, along with other ailments caused by a lack of food and clean water. Aid workers and fleeing residents said that some displaced people were so hungry that they had resorted to eating leaves and grass.

“If the conflict continues, half of South Sudan’s 12 million people will either be displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead by the year’s end,” the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, warned the Security Council this month.Both sides in the conflict, under international and regional pressure, agreed to allow humanitarian corridors to be opened, and a shaky peace deal was signed on May 9 in the Ethiopian capital to lead to the creation of a transitional government. But, as with a cease-fire signed in January, fighting resumed within days.

At a clinic here run by Doctors Without Borders, exhausted mothers stood in line with thin young children. When volunteer doctors measured the circumference of Ms Onwar’s 6-month-old son, the measuring tape’s arrow landed in the red zone, indicating acute malnutrition.

Increasing malnutrition

“When I was in this area last year, I used to admit 10 cases a week,” said Mitsuyoshi Morita of Doctors Without Borders. “Now, the scale is much higher: in a week, we admit hundreds.” Ajob Duath is a boy of 4, but he looks a fraction of his age.

 Incredibly thin and obviously weak, he sat on the dirt ground, in red shorts, almost still as a statue, other than the slow movements of his left hand to ward off flies from his face. “He has been very sick since the war started,” his mother, Angelina Folo, 20, said tearfully.

At the advice of doctors, Ms Onwar carried her son onto a motorboat to head down the river to the nearest hospital, also run by Doctors Without Borders. There, medics fed him milk through a tube that ran through his nose. His tiny hands were tied in cotton bandage wraps so he could not pull the tube off. His mother looked over his face as she held him in her arms. “This is not a good situation,” Ms Onwar said.The hospital is, in fact, a large tent inside a United Nations base in the city of Malakal. Thousands of displaced people now live there, while Malakal itself, South Sudan’s second-largest city, is a ghost town. 

After several bloody battles for control of the city between rebels and the government, nearly all residents have left. In more peaceful times, Malakal’s market was the place where surrounding farmers, cattle herders and traders came to sell their goods.

“No one in the conflict areas is doing what they are supposed to be doing right now,” said Sue Lautze of the United Nations. “Preparing the land, moving the livestock and catching fish.” 

Even livestock, a source of milk, meat and income, have felt the brunt of the conflict. Nearly 10 million of the animals, a third of the total number in South Sudan, have been scattered by the war, some spotted in surprising places, Ms. Lautze said.“Some were even seen in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” she said.

Delivering assistance to people in need also faces challenges. With the rainy season underway, South Sudan’s mostly dirt roads become impassible, cutting off large populations. River barges at times have come under fire. “The only other means of accessing these areas is to airdrop food into them,” said Mike Sackett of the World Food Programme, “which is seven times more expensive.”

And then there is the looting. In Malakal, United Nations food warehouses were looted this year. The warehouses look like skeletons now, with the tarps that covered them stripped off and empty oil cans and water purifier packets all over the place.

On Tuesday, in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, international donors will gather to discuss the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, with the aim of raising $1.3 billion in the hope of averting a famine. President Obama on Monday authorised up to $50 million in aid to help alleviate the crisis. “South Sudan needs help,” said Barnaba Benjamin, South Sudan’s foreign minister.

But given the scale of the crisis, even if donors meet their target goal and act quickly, it may be too late for some. “It is not really a question whether lives will be lost due to hunger, but how many,” Sackett said.

For Ms Lautze, the issue has personal resonance. She spent 25 years studying and fighting famine. In 1993, as a young humanitarian worker, she visited the town of Ayod, where only days later, the freelance photographer Kevin Carter took his Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of a vulture looming behind a starving South Sudanese child. “The single best way to prevent the famine is to stop the fighting,” Lautze said. “If they keep fighting, the game is lost.”