The United Nations (UN) officially declared famine in areas of South Sudan earlier this year. UN reporting has indicated that more than 5.5 million South Sudanese require aid, 4.8 million are facing hunger and over 1 million children are acutely malnourished. Aid organizations are particularly concerned about food insecurity in South Sudan’s Unity State, Upper Nile State and Jonglei. These organizations have stated that the expected number of people facing hunger will increase to 5.5 million in July if nothing is done to relieve the hunger crisis.
According to the World Food Programme, South Sudan’s current famine is, “The worst hunger catastrophe since fighting erupted more than three years ago.” Food insecurity in a country is assessed using the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which is the official system of classification the UN uses. Parts of South Sudan have reached the fifth and final stage, “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.” This level of food insecurity is met when two people per 10,000 die each day, acute malnutrition rates surpass 30%, all livestock is dead, and, at least, 20% of the population have access to less than 2,100 kilocalories of food per day.
As Oxfam explains, famine results from a triple failure of food production, people’s ability to access food and the responses of governments and international donors. Thus the extreme level of food insecurity in South Sudan has taken years to develop. It is the result of drought and poor harvest, and most critically a result of political and economic failures.
Though not wholly responsible, failed food production is an important contributor to South Sudan’s famine. South Sudan and the countries in the Horn of Africa have suffered consecutive years of poor rainfall and drought. The effects of long-term droughts have meant that there has been close to no recovery of South Sudan’s agriculture and pastoralists. With water supplies drying up faster than normal, fields and pastures are parched and livestock are at an increased risk of dying from starvation and disease. Alongside the difficult environmental conditions, South Sudan’s ongoing conflict has severely disrupted agriculture. Since nearly 95% of the South Sudanese population depends on farming, fishing or herding for survival, the effects of conflict have resulted in farmers losing most of their means of sustaining themselves. Half of all crops in conflict areas have been lost and many farmers have been driven away from their land by fighting. According to Serge Tissot, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) representative in South Sudan, many have lost their livestock and even their farming tools. These individuals have resorted to eating whatever they can find, such as weeds and water lily roots. It is apparent that South Sudan’s food insecurity is a result of war and drought. These factors caused food production failure.
Another reason contributing to the widespread food insecurity and famine in South Sudan is people’s inability to access food. According to Africa Research Institute researchers, Paul Adams and Edward Paice, food prices in South Sudan have soared to unbearable levels due to the scarce supply of food, while wages have remained at low levels. Even when droughts are over, prices remain stubbornly high. Data from Trading Economics has shown that food inflation from 2008 until the end of 2016 averaged 77.58%. However, food inflation reached an all time high of 1002.2% in October 2016. This means that ordinary citizens struggle to afford food to feed their families when it is available. To make the situation worse, poor roads and infrastructure negatively impact critical food supply lines. Food stores are scarcely supplied with food and many markets are empty, so food is often unavailable and inaccessible. As a result, supply chain issues and hyperinflation makes purchasing food in South Sudan’s collapsed economy almost impossible.
The most crucial reason for South Sudan’s famine is ongoing conflict and political failure. These events displace massive numbers of civilians and prevent humanitarian aid from reaching those in need. South Sudan has been politically fragmented by civil war since 2013, and this has played a crucial role in creating the conditions of famine. The conflict was initially between ethnic Dinka supporters of President Salva Kiir and ethnic Nuer supporters of former deputy Riek Machar. However, it quickly spread to other parts of the country as other ethnic groups became engulfed in the conflict. Throughout South Sudan’s countryside, various rebel forces are resisting the government with extreme violence and causing mass displacement. According to the European Commission, more than 1.85 million people are internally displaced in South Sudan and over 1.5 million South Sudanese refugees are in neighbouring countries due to violence and food insecurity. Conflict has already killed tens of thousands of people and continues to force people to flee their homes, further exacerbating South Sudan’s famine.
In addition, conflict hinders the delivery of humanitarian aid to where it is most needed. Humanitarian aid is what has prevented many areas of South Sudan from being ravaged by famine. In fact, the areas held by rebels in South Sudan have been declared to be in famine because aid groups cannot reach people with emergency food supplies due to conflict. Oxfam Emergency response officer Kenyi Alison highlighted the problem of reduced humanitarian access in conflict zones, “I have seen a lot in the past seven years in South Sudan, and things are getting worse. Our major concern now is gaining access to locations where people need our help. In some areas, we even have to swim to reach them.” In many cases, South Sudan’s warring parties have even denied humanitarian aid by looting food, sometimes in enormous quantities from aid warehouses. Aid workers fear the government may be intentionally denying aid and intensifying food insecurity in regions that support the rebels. If this is proven to be true, it can be regarded as a crime against humanity and a violation of international law. This highlights how famine is man-made and the direct result of human action.
The UN has played a significant role in providing aid to keep as many South Sudanese people alive as possible. The European Union’s commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management as well as Pope Francis have both urged South Sudan’s government and rebels to stop blocking aid deliveries. They have also called upon the international community to provide additional aid. The UN’s FAO has also planned to deliver over 150,000 fishing kits consisting of lines, hooks, and nets for those in need. Humanitarian aid, however, is not a long-term solution for South Sudan’s food crisis. Since South Sudan has extremely limited centralized security services capable of maintaining or enforcing peace, international support is necessary to help bring peace to the young, divided nation. At the end of 2016, the U.S. drafted a resolution on imposing an arms embargo and sanctions on South Sudan to mitigate conflict. However, this was blocked by a divided UN Security Council despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s pleas for action as he warned of the danger of a potential genocide in South Sudan.
Peace and the termination of fighting are of the utmost importance to resolving famine in South Sudan. However, peace is unlikely to come to South Sudan without significant international support. The August 2015 peace deal unsuccessfully stopped fighting and fighting resumed in July 2016. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has thus stressed the importance for South Sudan’s leaders maintain a spirit of cooperation and collectively work towards reconstructing the nation.
In the short term, aid is crucial for preventing people from simply starving to death and reversing development gains. UN Humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has urged for increased international funding to provide emergency relief to regions experiencing famine, or on the cusp of famine.
Long-term strategies are imperative for lasting peace. As O’Brien said, “Only a political solution will ultimately end human suffering and bring stability to the region.” Some possible strategies governments can adopt to relieve food insecurity in South Sudan are to improve the tradability of food, coordinate climate change adaptation strategies and meet the African Union target of allocating 15% of South Sudan’s budget spending to agriculture. Furthermore, Adam and Paice advised that the government addresses the relentless inflation of food prices. More long-term investment is also required to develop technologies to help food production in times of drought and poor rainfall.
“It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes,” O’Brien stated. “It is all preventable.”