NAIROBI — As the rainy season descends on South Sudan, an unprecedented number of people face severe food insecurity. Access to people in need is already difficult in the country, where a civil war has raged for more than four years. With the rains, access to these populations will now be further hampered as flooded roads become impassable, leaving populations isolated in pockets throughout the country and unable to receive emergency aid.
This year, some 5.3 million people — or 48 percent of the population — are estimated to be facing severe food insecurity in the post-harvest season in South Sudan, meaning that they are somehow dependent on humanitarian food aid. This is a 40 percent increase from last year. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification has warned that at its peak, this figure could reach 7.1 million people in need of assistance in the coming months.
The spread of the conflict has resulted in a higher number of people in need than previous years, said Simon Cammelbeeck, World Food Programme acting South Sudan country director. In the past, there were parts of the country that to a certain extent escaped the conflict. But over the past two years, the conflict has spread to essentially the whole country, leading to an escalating number of people in need. A famine situation is likely without an urgent increase in aid, according to a recent press release from the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“South Sudan’s food crisis levels are shocking,” said Rehana Zawar, NRC country director in South Sudan, in the release. “Alarm bells are ringing as the threat of famine is now more widespread than this time last year. Tens of thousands of families are at risk of starvation.”
As the fighting spread, it reached the nation’s breadbasket of Equatoria in 2016, causing farmers to flee their land. This has caused a severe decrease in the overall food production in the country. There is currently an estimated deficit of more than 1 billion pounds of locally produced cereal, according to a crop and food security assessment from WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This is a 26 percent increase from last year. This is compounded by an economic crisis, where civil servants have also not been paid for months.
“In the past, traders came to Equatoria to buy sorghum and maize and then moved it to parts of the country which had deficits,” said Cammelbeeck. “But the production is less and the trade is hampered because of the conflict. The traders cannot access where there is a little bit of surplus.”
Newly displaced populations are also trying to situate themselves out of the reach of armed militants, which means that they are harder to access for humanitarian actors, said Elizabeth White, policy adviser at Oxfam.
Towns and urban areas have also seen large arrivals of displaced populations, increasing pressure on already limited food sources, said Geno Teofilo, regional head of communications and advocacy for East Africa and Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The coming rains
The rainy season has started in parts of the country and is spreading to other areas, which will push the country into its “lean” months and last until November. The rains are a major hindrance to access in outlying areas, which cannot be reached by road once the rains have started. The food security crisis is expected to be at its worst in the next few months because after the initial rains, there is expected to be some local food production. This makes May to July the most critical period to reach vulnerable populations, said Cammelbeeck.
“We have to continue providing at a large scale or there is the risk that people will fall back into some kind of emergency, or famine-like situation, like what happened last year,” said Cammelbeeck. “If we drop support, very quickly people will get into bad shape in a relatively short time, starting with the children and pregnant and lactating women.”
During the rainy season, the humanitarian sector has to depend heavily on airplane drops of emergency aid to reach remote communities, which is an expensive way to deliver aid. This is coupled with the fact that the crisis is underfunded. The crisis has only been funded 8.3 percent, with a $1.6 billion deficit, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Because of this, wide-scale use of air drops is not financially feasible.
The humanitarian sector is scrambling to pre-position supplies in strategic locations in the lead-up to the rains so that it can still reach the most vulnerable. Beyond road and air transport networks, rivers are also used to reach populations. As the water table rises, more communities will be accessible by boat, which is a cheaper option than air dropping supplies. Because of limited resources, agencies such as WFP have not yet been able to deliver the total pre-positioned tonnage of food, as planned, said Cammelbeeck. Without an increase in resources, WFP food rations will need to be reduced.
“There is a big concern that if we have to cut the rations, [the situation] will worsen quickly,” he said. “We hope that we will not get to the situation that we had last year where we had famine-like situation.”
Beyond reaching populations with food, it is essential that these population also receive water, sanitation, and hygiene services, so that their bodies are in conditions where they can absorb that food, said White. Last year, WASH needs were only 35 percent funded, as compared to almost 70 percent funded for food security, she said.
“You’ve got new arrivals in areas, now hosted by communities that might have access to a certain number of boreholes for clean water, a certain number of latrines,” said White. “Now you’ve got considerably more people using those resources, which inherently brings challenges in the ability to uphold safe hygiene and sanitation practices.”