Outlook remains bleak for South Sudan food crisis

Food distribution in Dome town, South Sudan, where river barges are used by the World Food Programme to cut the cost of delivering food. Photo by: WFP / Gabriela Vivacqua

LONDON — Food insecurity in South Sudan is set to worsen in the first part of next year as millions of people are left in need of assistance, according to the Global Humanitarian Overview 2019.

“We see no particular reason for optimism going forward because nothing on the ground seems to have changed much.”

— Adnan Khan, South Sudan country director, World Food Programme

Currently, 4.4 million people — just under half the country’s population — are facing acute food insecurity classified at “crisis” levels, but that number is set to rise to 5.2 million between January-March 2019.  

Adnan Khan, the World Food Programme country director for South Sudan, said the outlook was bleak. “We see no particular reason for optimism going forward because nothing on the ground seems to have changed much,” he explained, adding that production of crops hasn’t risen enough to bridge the food gap. “In the absence of a major change in the ground situation, there is little likelihood that conditions will dramatically improve.”

Khan has been in Brussels, Belgium, this week, appealing for the $336 million WFP says it needs to provide food and nutrition assistance until May next year — a fraction of the $1.5 billion required for the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan for South Sudan, due to be released next week.

Last year, WFP supported 5 million people in South Sudan, helping to avert famine with support from donors such as the European Commission. For 2019, Khan says they need more upfront funding so they can better prepare for the year’s needs. But overall, they are asking for slightly less money, in the hope that advance planning will make their work more efficient.

“We are trying to get resources in a sense ‘front loaded,’ so given to us now so that we’re able to both meet the immediate needs as well as preposition needs and be able to [make] our operation not only as effective as possible, but also as efficient as possible, saving on huge costs of having to do the same thing [later] through air drops and deliveries,” Khan said.

“I want to emphasize that the reduction in food response is not because of the number of people in need going down ... but because we expect to make our operations more efficient by prepositioning larger quantities of food,” he added.

Speaking to Devex from Brussels, Khan said the key challenge for food security in South Sudan is conflict and displacement. “The conflict forced many people to move out of the country ... They have not yet come back and resumed production so a major change in crop production will not take place,” he said. Despite a peace agreement, agricultural producers need to feel confident that the environment will remain stable long enough for them to harvest their crops if they return, he explained.

There are still more than 2 million refugees and asylum-seekers from South Sudan in neighboring countries, and 1.7 million internally displaced people. Where there are “pockets of stability,” WFP has started work to build the resilience of farmers and help regenerate food production.

But with little food being produced inside the landlocked country, assistance must be brought in through access corridors. And during the rainy season — lasting roughly from April to October — access to some areas becomes almost impossible, making it essential to preposition food in places closer to those who might need it.

“If we are unable to preposition, then the only option remaining for us in those circumstances is air delivery, and air deliveries are at least eight times more expensive, if not more,” Khan said.

In addition to the immediate humanitarian needs, the long-term development of South Sudan also remains a challenge. Under the Integrated Phase Classification system used to measure food assistance needs, higher numbers indicate a population with greater humanitarian needs. In South Sudan, the proportion of the population considered resilient has dropped dramatically.

“The percentage of the population in phase one — the backbone, the producing population of the country — went down from 49 percent to 10 percent between 2014 and 2018 … While humanitarian assistance is targeted toward the population in phases three, four, and five, it is the rebuilding of this phase one population — bringing them back from 10 percent to 49 percent — that is the challenge for the humanitarian-development nexus,” he said.

“As we move forward — and with cautious optimism — to peace, this is the part of the population ... that we need to start to immediately focus on so that we lay the basis for any speedy recovery in the country.”

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  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.