Can the world’s newest nation survive its complex humanitarian crisis?

By Andrew Green 09 July 2015

A resident of Abyei Area holds the flag of South Sudan to celebrate the signing of a peace agreement in 2009. South Sudan celebrates its fourth year of independence on July 9, but the country is still riddled with conflict. Photo by: Tim McKulka / UN Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

There is little to celebrate as South Sudan marks its fourth independence anniversary today.

Instead of an end to the nearly 19 months of fighting that have devastated the country, there are reports of increasingly gruesome attacks on civilians. An outbreak of cholera has hit the capital, Juba, for the second year in a row. And South Sudan’s economy is on the verge of collapse, affecting areas of the country untouched by fighting and adding to the tens of thousands of people at risk of severe food shortages in the coming months.

Even if peace arrives soon, humanitarian agencies warn, it would take the country decades to recover from the effects of the ongoing violence.

“The nature of the crisis is just managing to get increasingly more complex as the risks and threats become multiple and often overlapping,” said Sue Lautze, the United Nations’ interim humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan. “In some ways, you don’t know what crisis you’re supposed to attend to first when you come to work in the morning.”

Short-lived euphoria

It’s a far cry from four years ago, when South Sudan’s official split from Sudan was greeted with all-night, firework-punctuated celebrations. In his inaugural speech as president of the world’s newest country, Salva Kiir called it “the most important day for the people of South Sudan,” before requesting that it “mark a new beginning of tolerance, unity and love for one another.”

Kiir’s cabinet appointments, drawn from South Sudan’s 10 states and its many ethnic groups, emphasized that plea, none more so than Vice President Riek Machar. A leader in the Nuer community, South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group, Machar had fought among the southern rebels — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army — before falling out with SPLA leadership in 1991. Forces under his command then carried out one of the most brutal attacks in the area’s history, massacring at least 2,000 southerners in what is now the Jonglei state capital, Bor.

Machar rejoined the SPLA in 2002 and his ascendancy to the vice presidency underscored Kiir’s commitment to forgive, if not forget, for the sake of developing South Sudan.

The truce held less than three years. In July 2013, weeks after celebrating the country’s second anniversary, Kiir fired Machar and the rest of his cabinet amid rumors that his deputy was angling to challenge him during 2015 elections. Tensions simmered until early in the evening of Dec. 15 when fighting broke out between soldiers at a military barracks in Juba. Kiir accused Machar of mounting a coup. The former vice president denied the charge, but the conflict spread quickly through the country’s northwest. Days later Machar declared a rebellion against the government.

More than a year and a half later, following rounds of failed talks and discarded cease-fire agreements, fighting continues. Tens of thousands of people are dead and nearly 2.2 million others have been displaced. But that is just the beginning of how the humanitarian community has come to measure the fighting’s impact.

At least 40 percent of the country’s population — 4.6 million people — will face acute food insecurity by the end of this month, according to a recent analysis. Widespread drug stockouts are expected and the limited primary health care system that development agencies were able to cobble together following the end of the Sudanese civil war has all but collapsed. The country’s currency has also suffered rampant inflation. It is now worth less than half of what it was at the end of last year.

“Before, the rest of the country where there was not fighting was not really affected,” said Edmund Yakani, who heads the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a Juba-based civil society group. “The country is now completely a humanitarian disaster.”

Exhausted coping strategies

Since the beginning of the conflict, human rights groups have gathered evidence showing both sides of the conflict have committed violations, including the targeted killing of civilians. But even against those standards, the findings of a report from the U.N. Mission in South Sudan released late last month on atrocities committed by the SPLA and affiliated militias in one South Sudan state were incredibly shocking.

Alongside killing, rape and abductions, eyewitnesses described “a new brutality and intensity, including such horrific acts as the burning alive of people inside their homes,” the authors of the report wrote. “The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences.” South Sudan’s military has rejected the report’s findings.

“The atrocities that have taken place from both sides of the divide are going to have long-term repercussions,” warned Mohammed Qazilbash, the country director of Mercy Corps. “Even if the fighting stops today, the whole concept of revenge killings will kick in.” Alongside any peace process, he said, it will be necessary to integrate a reconciliation and peace-building initiative to attempt to mitigate prolonged reprisal attacks.

In the wake of the latest allegations, the international community has also ramped up sanctions against military leaders on both sides. But key towns in the country’s northwest continue to change hands and humanitarian actors complain their access to displaced communities — some living on floating papyrus islands — is still being limited.

Lautze said the U.N. and others are using diplomatic channels to press for a pause in the fighting to allow aid workers to “get down some significant humanitarian assistance before they are totally cut off.” That commitment has not yet come.

At the same time, aid agencies are scrambling to assist nearly 70 percent of the population that is expected to see some food shortages over the coming months, including the 4.6 million estimated in a May Integrated Food Security Phase Classification to face severe food insecurity.

Shaun Hughes, the head of program for the World Food Program in South Sudan, described this as an inevitable result of the conflict’s length. The hundreds of thousands of people displaced during last year’s growing season now have no stores to get them through this lean season.

“What we would see in situations like this is that they may well have some coping strategies that they can draw on initially,” he said, including selling household items or cattle. Except those are now exhausted as well. “We can make an assumption that after 18 months of conflict, most populations have largely exhausted their coping strategies.”

‘Most acute edge of vulnerability’

Alarmingly, the hunger belt is spreading — not because of displacement, but because of the country’s rampant inflation and a global downturn in oil prices; South Sudan’s economy is heavily reliant on oil revenues. This after production had already been cut significantly during the early days of the conflict.

For urban areas that are dependent on markets, rather than their own production, a rapid increase in prices means they are suddenly unable to afford even basic goods. Humanitarians are warning that there could be pockets of malnutrition in cities and towns where food is available, but simply too expensive for some people to buy.

And aid agencies point to the current cholera outbreak to gauge the impact of the economic crisis. The government has never had services to deliver clean water, leaving people dependent on private water companies. But as fuel prices skyrocket, the trucks that bring water are finding it is no longer profitable to reach some of Juba’s farther-flung communities. People there are now dependent on potentially contaminated water sources for cooking, washing and drinking. At least 32 people have now died in the outbreak, according to the U.N.

The lack of financial revenue has also forced the government onto an austerity budget, which means they can no longer manage the social services — including procurement of basic drugs — they were supposed to take over from development partners this year. That adds another responsibility to already overstretched humanitarian and development agencies.

The sheer number of crises facing the international community means its members are constantly being forced into choices about where and how to respond.

“We are looking at the most acute edge of vulnerability,” Lautze said. “You have a cross list of things you have to look at. Is it addressing the most critical of survival requirements? Is it being proposed where the needs are greatest? Is it providing the enabling environment for us to save lives?”

And they are making these decisions nearly $1 billion short of the estimated $1.63 billion they need to fund this year’s response.

Amid the enormous challenges, Mercy Corps’ Qazilbash said there are still “opportunities for us to … better our gain, increase our capacity and become innovative with our approaches to addressing the humanitarian situation.” He pointed to one of his organization’s recent initiatives to provide direct cash assistance to people, which allows them to decide how best to address their most pressing priorities.

Still, today promises to be an Independence Day far different from that initial one four years ago.

“I keep hoping they will know the euphoria of independence four years ago,” Lautze said, “that they will know that again in their lifetime [and] that it was not a once-in-a-lifetime moment that they’ll never experience again.”

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

Andrew Green@_andrew_green

Andrew is a print and radio reporter (and occasional photographer) based in East Africa. He writes often from the region on issues of health and human rights. He has also worked as Voice of America’s South Sudan bureau chief and as the Center for Public Integrity’s Web editor.

Join the Discussion