Humanitarian groups working in South Sudan always dread the arrival of the rainy season — and it's not hard to understand why.
Around this time of year, aid organizations in the country are supposed to be pre-positioning supplies and ensuring aid will be available in hard-to-reach areas that becomes completely isolated once the rain start pouring in.
But almost four months after an alleged failed coup unleashed a still ongoing conflict between the government and rebel forces, recurring cases of aid looting and the recent mislabeling of a U.N. mission cargo have led to delays, a repurposing of funds and what seems to be reluctance from donors to release more funding for humanitarian operations in a nation where these are desperately needed.
For Jerome Oberreit, secretary-general of international medical group Medecins Sans Frontieres, the lack of logistics and preparation by aid agencies in the country is "extremely worrying" at such a crucial time.
"We are certainly not ready for the rainy season," he said during a conference call with reporters following a visit to South Sudan.
While MSF does not rely on the United Nations and donor governments for funds in conflict settings like South Sudan, many aid groups do. And this is problematic, according to Oberreit, as for instance the U.N. itself is not meeting the capacity needed to respond to a humanitarian crisis of this scale.
The head of MSF mentioned for instance the situation in the IDP camp in Tomping, where some 25,000 people have taken refuge. The camp, which is located in the U.N. Mission area in Juba, is among the most accessible for aid groups, but today it “risks becoming an epicenter of outbreaks and disease" as the first rains have flooded many latrines.
“This is happening under the nose of what is a big humanitarian capacity or should be a big humanitarian capacity in South Sudan," he quipped, adding that MSF teams are already treating large amounts of patients suffering from diarrhea, malaria and respiratory infections.
This is also happening in other safer areas in the country, such as in Minkaman, where some 80,000 people have moved. The U.N., according to Oberreit, found the place unsuitable to build camps, as it is along the White Nile River and at risk of flooding, but even after four "sublocations" were found to create suitable resettlement sites there, nothing happened.
"So you have a very absurd situation where [in] the unsuitable camp nothing has been done ... then finally the UN find four sublocations where the IDPs can be moved to, but at this stage nothing has begun to happen in those four new locations, and they are not at all ready to receive IDPs [for] there's no infrastructure, no latrines, no water point and so on. And yet we know we’re in a race against time [with] the heavy rains coming in the coming months," he said.
This is not the first time MSF has criticized the United Nations for its response in South Sudan. Last year, the organization took a swipe at the world body for failing to sufficiently prepare for the rainy season.
South Sudan has seen an overflow of aid funds since its secession from Sudan in 2011.
However, the way this money has been spent has been criticized in the past few months, with experts and stakeholders on the ground arguing that the country still needed a lot of humanitarian support, but that priority has been on state building — and this seem to remain until now.
While there's a clear need for more humanitarian funding to the crisis — with the U.N. estimating the number of internally displaced people and those who have fled to neighboring countries to have reached more than 900,000 — donor commitments remain relatively small. Only $384.47 million or 30 percent of the $1.27 billion U.N. appeal has been met to date.
And with reported lootings and access issues, donors appear even more reluctant to release humanitarian funds.
"Donors need to recognize the scale of the problem and ensure that aid agencies can step up their activities to meet the challenges that we have ahead ... and ensure in this next period and throughout the rains that there’s a lot of flexibility in the response given by NGOs … [but] currently it seems that the overall response that I’ve seen when I was there seems to be heavy, bureaucratic and very difficult to release funds and to get NGOs to be able to be operational on the ground," Oberreit said.
The heads of the U.N. agencies in South Sudan have recently voiced the same concerns.
"We need your financial assistance now, not next month, we need to get supplies moving, huge supplies," OCHA coordinator John Ging said of donors in an earlier call with journalists. "If we cannot deliver to poor people, we cannot get from the donors what the people are direly in need of ... We cannot raise humanitarian assistance every time they are stolen, looted."
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