In the wake of the United Nation’s declaration of famine in parts of war-torn South Sudan, humanitarian agencies are scrambling to deliver emergency assistance for the 100,000 people currently facing starvation and the more than 1 million more who are on the brink of it. These efforts could be stymied, however, if access issues in the war-torn country continue to prevent aid workers from reaching the people most in need.
The challenges include marshaling the resources to reach people who are hiding in remote areas and navigating the logistics of delivering aid in a country with little infrastructure and seasonal rains that make any form of travel virtually impossible.
Most critically, though, their efforts are being hampered by an ongoing conflict between the government and rebels — a conflict that is responsible for creating the famine in the first place by wrecking the economy and robbing people of their livelihoods. Both sides have shown a willingness to block delivery of aid and even attack humanitarians throughout the conflict.
Without more resources and improved, secure access, officials are warning that by July, 5.5 million people — nearly half of the country’s population — could face severe food insecurity.
“There is an overall increase in the number of people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance at a time of the year when the country historically should be the most food secure,” said Vandana Agarwal, UNICEF’s chief nutrition officer in South Sudan. Greater access is “essential for the humanitarian community to ensure that the basic rights of the people facing catastrophic conditions are fulfilled.”
There is some reason to think that this week’s declaration will ease access where earlier warnings have not. While it does not trigger a specific response, a famine declaration is designed to underscore just how severe the situation has become and, hopefully, to encourage greater cooperation from all actors in mounting a quick response.
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To make a famine declaration, governments and U.N. agencies follow a rigorous methodology designed to avoid politicizing the term. The threshold includes 20 percent of the population having extremely limited access to basic food requirements and a death rate that exceeds two per 10,000 people each day, among other requirements.
Following the declaration, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in a speech to parliament promised to help contribute to an immediate response.
Still, aid workers continue to complain of difficulties in reaching some of the country’s most vulnerable populations. The government continues to restrict access to parts of the country, although not always those experiencing famine, said David Shearer — the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general to its mission in South Sudan — in a press briefing shortly after the famine declaration.
A new civil war
The famine comes more than three years into South Sudan’s conflict — a political spat between Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar that devolved into an ethnically motivated struggle engulfing much of the country. Areas that have not seen direct fighting are still affected by a tanking economy and reduced internal trade.
The areas that have been hit by famine — two counties in the northeastern Unity State and a third that is all but certain to reach the threshold soon — have seen some of the most consistent fighting during the war. Tens of thousands of civilians who have been unable to find relative safety in U.N. compounds or to cross a border have sought refuge in remote corners of the state. In the brief windows when humanitarians are able to enter those areas, they have found it difficult to provide even temporary aid, let alone mount a sustained response.
Medair, which has long been one of the most active relief organizations in the country, is providing nutrition and sanitation services in Leer County, one of the two counties where famine has so far been declared. They have not been able to set up a field base there, “so all supplies for technical teams who visit need to be transported by flight for the time of a field visit, including food, communication, water filters and household supplies,” said Caroline Boyd, who heads Medair’s South Sudan program.
When entering a contested area, Medair — like all aid groups — must coordinate with the government and opposition forces well in advance to ensure the safety of the aid workers. And even these assurances might not be enough, as humanitarians have repeatedly been targeted by both sides in the conflict.
A U.N. helicopter flying over rebel territory in 2014 was shot down and three people were killed. Barges carrying food have come under fire. Government troops attacked a compound primarily housing NGO workers last year, where they killed a journalist and beat and raped aid staff. Overall, the U.N. reports that nearly 70 humanitarians have been killed since the conflict began, the vast majority of them South Sudanese.
“Immediate intervention is absolutely imperative to save lives now,” said Serge Tissot, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations representative in South Sudan. “New mechanisms for swift clearance of humanitarian access requests must be established and fresh funding is urgently needed. Close monitoring will also continue.”
These dangers are layered on top of the existing difficulties and expenses of organizing relief in one of the least developed countries in the world. The humanitarian sector, which officially put out its annual call for support this month, estimated it needs $1.6 billion to assist 5.8 million people in South Sudan this year. That is up from $1.3 billion last year.
The vast majority of that money would go toward shoring up food security and livelihoods — an expensive undertaking in a country where roads are rare and prone to turn to glue or to wash away during the regular rainy seasons.
“At the moment, we are in the dry season, so most of the areas are reachable, but as the rainy season starts in the coming weeks, more and more will be cut off,” Tissot said. “Pre-positioning is essential in this case.”
All of that effort can be undone if pre-positioned supplies are raided by the warring sides — something that has happened frequently over the past three years.
Finding a way in
Despite the difficulties, agencies are doing what they can. UNICEF is running rapid response missions to reach the most vulnerable children. Médecins Sans Frontières had its hospital in Leer shut down after it became too dangerous for both the medical staff and the patients, according to Martins Dada, a head advisor for the organization who just visited South Sudan.
Now, the group is experimenting with training community health worker teams who move with people during periods of instability and are equipped with the skills to provide some immediate support while they wait for a broader humanitarian intervention.
“Staff and patients are not placed at additional risk when they cross the frontline of fighting to get to a hospital, and both staff and patients can simply flee with their families and loved ones when faced with conflict between armed actors,” Dada said.
At the same time, agencies are feeling pressure to mount a response in areas of the country that are not yet experiencing famine but might if food insecurity continues to deteriorate.
After three years of conflict, vast swathes of the country have seen their livelihoods decimated, including about 50 percent of all harvests in conflict areas, according to the U.N.’s newly released Humanitarian Needs Overview. Livestock have been killed and families have exhausted their coping strategies.
“Emergency food aid and support to agriculture are complementary in a crisis like this,” Tissot said. “Food assistance helps people to survive, but agriculture helps people to live. With the main cropping season due to start in a matter of weeks, we must act now to get farmers the critical inputs they need to plant.”
Otherwise, the first famine to be declared since 2011 is only likely to grow.
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