There is a looming crisis in South Sudan that, if not dealt with, could rival some of the worst famines in recent history. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) and the WFP (World Food Program) released a statement earlier this month that points to alarming food security issues in the world's newest country.
The situation is complex, but revolves around a struggle for power between the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, and his former Vice-President, Riek Machar. On December 15th 2013, fighting erupted during what has been called an "attempted coup" by Machar to oust Kiir. This has led to both sides consolidating soldiers and fighting for power.
Attempts to inflame inter-ethnic rivalries have also occurred on both sides, with current President Kiir hailing from the Dinka tribe, and former Vice-President Machar coming from the Nuer tribe. Machar's attempt to recruit the Nuer White Army, so named for a tradition of covering themselves in white ash, has been seen as a 'wild card' militia he's ultimately unable to control. While the White Army cares little about running the country, they are incredibly protective of their own land. Tensions, easily escalated by politicians on either side, have led to numerous atrocities, including door-to-door executions and sexual violence. Meanwhile, near Juba, SPLA soldiers, controlled by Kiir, have been accused of similar crimes against humanity.
These ethnic and political incursions change the landscape of the famine set to hit South Sudan. This threat of starvation is not occurring because of a natural scarcity, or even a political attempt to starve out opponents (which has occurred in Sudan before). Rather, this is an issue of South Sudan's internal refugees, forced to flee their homes to escape the violence.
One worker in South Sudan's displacement camps explained, "With the conflict, agricultural production has virtually stopped. Many have been displaced, have lost their land, tools, and therefore cannot engage in small-scale agriculture to support themselves. At the same time, trade has stopped up-country so markets are rare and seeds are expensive. In other words, South Sudan will not produce enough agricultural outputs to feed the population and will rely on external food aid."
The rate of internally displaced persons (IDPs) has risen steadily since the violence began, but has been felt most in Upper Nile and Unity States. The UNHCR puts the number of IDPs at around 250,000 at the moment; however, even those isolated in their villages have felt the effect of both violence and food security.
On the 4th of April, the UNHCR and WFP estimated that 230 million US dollars were needed in the next 60 days to keep the situation in South Sudan from turning into one of the worst food crises in recent memory.
A number of intrepid aid workers and activists, dedicated to helping those in the most vulnerable of circumstances, are pitching in to help. Groups such as CARE South Sudan, International Medical Corps, Doctors Without Borders and the American Refugee Committee head into some of the most afflicted areas to administer food aid, medical care and temporary housing. A recent review of aid-driven job boards finds many of these groups hiring food security managers and logistics operators, in an attempt to head off this upcoming crisis.
Yet, like most security issues, this is not a problem that can be solved by simply giving aid; the real solution is lasting peace. Although a peace deal was signed in January, fighting remains in South Sudan. At a press conference in Juba, the UNHCR's Antonio Guterres spoke out against this issue, "The solution is always political; the solution is peace, and only the South Sudanese can bring peace to the country... my appeal to the international community is to come together to join efforts and to do everything possible for the parties to forge peace."
Still, regarding aid, there is some good news. On the 14th of April, Australia announced that it would be giving $7.8 million to those in South Sudan. Food aid and logistics would receive $5 million, and $2.8 million would go to funding shelters, sanitation and housing projects. Yet sadly, far more aid will be needed to stem the impending starvation.
Many of us can look back on the food crisis that hit Ethiopia in the mid 1980s with an understanding that the international community cannot and should not stand by and let a similar situation occur. For those displaced in South Sudan, time is of the essence.
The world has 60 days, according the UN, to step up and do its part for the international community. Otherwise we risk another tragedy that will be, for the most part, completely avoidable.