United Nations food agencies are ramping up relief efforts in South Sudan, warning that fighting threatens to increase hunger and unravel modest gains made in food security in the two years since the country seceded from Sudan and became the world’s youngest nation.
A major concern is the displacement of around 355 000 people driven from their homes since the conflict erupted a month ago between President Salva Kiir’s forces and those of former deputy president Riek Machar. This has thrown the agricultural sector into turmoil at a time when preparations should be underway for plantings or harvests “generating an alarming risk of food insecurity and malnutrition,” according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“Timing is everything. There are fish in the rivers now, pastoralists are trying to protect their herds and the planting season for maize, groundnut and sorghum starts in March,” FAO country representative Sue Lautze said in the South Sudanese capital Juba.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said on Monday as it gains access to besieged areas, the number of people killed “must be much higher” than the 1 000 figure given earlier in the conflict.
Under the UN Crisis Response Plan, FAO and its partners are seeking $61 million for efforts to get seed, livestock vaccines, fishing gear and other agricultural inputs and services to vulnerable rural and urban families whose production and income activities are being disrupted.
“It is essential that security and stability return to South Sudan immediately so displaced people can return to their homes, fields, herds and fishing grounds,” Lautze said.
“Even before the recent fighting, which has displaced more than 352 000 people, some 4.4 million people (out of a total of about 11 million) were estimated to be facing food insecurity in South Sudan. Of those 830 000 are facing acute food insecurity,” FAO Emergency and Rehabilitation Division Director Dominique Burgeon said at the agency’s headquarters in Rome.
FAO’s priorities include restoring the animal health system by rebuilding the cold chain needed to store and transport vaccines, reviving community-based animal health networks, increasing access to seeds and micro-irrigation equipment, support for fishing, and promoting the efficient use of fuels by internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The conflict is affecting major supply routes, displacing traders and leading to rising food and fuel prices, along with the breakdown of local markets which are crucial to rural farmers, fishers and livestock-dependent populations.
“South Sudan was already facing challenges in terms of livestock diseases. In some areas, young animals have been dying at a rate of up to 50%. FAO and its partners have made progress in partially controlling these diseases and reducing mortality through systematic vaccination, but we estimate more than half of the country’s capacity for vaccine storage and distribution has been lost and must urgently be restored,” Lautze said.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has launched a $57,8-million emergency operation to expand food aid for up to 400 000 IDPs over the next three months, including specialised nutritional support for new mothers and young children who are most at risk from a disruption in their food supply.
Looting of food and other assets
“While we and our partners are reaching more people every day, we still face difficulties accessing some areas as well as looting of food and other assets from a number of our compounds and warehouses around the country,” WFP East and Central Africa Regional Director Valerie Guarnieri said.
WFP fears the impact on food security will be significant for some time even if political talks now underway in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, succeed in ending hostilities.
With fighting continuing, aid agencies are having trouble reaching many areas of South Sudan. WFP food stocks pre-positioned at nearly 100 sites around the country facilitate the relief effort but these stocks are also at risk. So far, WFP estimates that 10% of its food in the country has been looted – enough to feed some 180 000 people for a month.
“WFP urges all parties to protect civilians and safeguard humanitarian assets, such as food stocks, so they can be used to provide critical relief, especially for women and children, affected by the violence. We join our partners in urgently appealing to both sides to allow access for humanitarian agencies to safely provide assistance,” WFP Deputy Country Director Eddie Rowe said.
With more than half of South Sudan inaccessible by road during the rainy season, WFP would, in a normal year, now be starting the annual effort to pre-position food in remote locations before the rains start in April or May. Conflict makes that difficult or impossible in some places and it is likely some communities in need will be reachable only by air.
Meanwhile, UNMISS continues to protect nearly 60 000 civilians inside 10 bases across the country and is creating a new site in Juba, where 30 000 IDPs are already seeking shelter at two UN locations. It said anti-Government forces are in control of Bor in Jonglei state, amid reports of sporadic gunfire close to the UN base there, while Bentiu in the north, where nearly 9 000 civilians are being protected by 570 UN peacekeepers, remains relatively calm.
Aid agencies are concerned about reports of violence against civilians and aid workers and the looting of humanitarian compounds and commandeering of vehicles. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Imonovic will visit South Sudan this week to assess the situation amid reported abuses by both sides.