Three United Nations (UN) agencies, in coordination with the South Sudan government, have declared an official state of famine in two of the country’s northern counties. In the midst of South Sudan’s ongoing civil war and economic crisis, many officials have identified the famine as being man-made.
Although famine-like conditions have been a persistent problem in South Sudan and the surrounding regions, the official UN declaration means that resultant deaths have now been confirmed. Per a UN announcement, there are over 100,000 South Sudanese people who are currently experiencing famine in two afflicted counties, with another one million poised to follow them if conditions worsen. An update to South Sudan’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification identifies 42% of the population as currently being “severely food insecure,” and this number is expected to rise to 47% by July if current trends continue. Although only two counties have been declared as being in a state of famine, almost the entire rest of the country is rated as being at an ‘emergency,’ ‘crisis,’ or ‘stressed’ state of food security.
Currently, one in three families is food-insecure, and three-quarters have inadequate access to food. Serge Tissot, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization in South Sudan, remarks that civilians are currently subsisting solely on “whatever plants they can find and fish they can catch.” Children are particularly endangered, with 250,000 identified as being severely malnourished and at risk of death if the famine continues. The ongoing economic crisis, which has caused an 800% rate of inflation, further exacerbates this issue by leaving many unable to afford food.
Joyce Luma, head of the World Food Programme in South Sudan, is unequivocal in stating that “this famine is man-made.” Some attribute it to explicit failures on the part of the South Sudan’s government, the treasury of which reports spending 44% of its budget on military and security costs but, conversely, only 11% on health, education, and humanitarian affairs. In January the government notably rejected the addition of 4,000 UN peacekeepers to the 13,500 already stationed in the country, and has also reportedly blocked the UN from delivering food aid to certain disputed areas.
In addition to South Sudan, the UN has identified Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria as being at-risk for additional famines. Arif Husain, the World Food Program’s Chief Economist, has warned that a combined twenty million people could starve to death from famines occurring in these four countries over the next six months. The refugee crisis will also likely continue to have an impact outside of South Sudan’s borders, with a reported 698,000 refugees having fled to Uganda, 342,000 to Ethiopia, and 305,000 to Sudan. The UN Refugee Agency has stated that “South Sudan is now Africa’s largest refugee crisis and the world’s third [largest] after Syria and Afghanistan.”
The World Food Programme currently plans to provide assistance to 4.1 million South Sudanese, and UNICEF accounts for 207,000 more children, with various other organizations and UN agencies planning additional aid. Yet, funding remains uncertain. For instance, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stresses that they “need $4.4 billion by the end of March to avert a catastrophe.” And, as Luma has noted, “there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security.” Even if fully funded, food aid will only prove a temporary solution if underlying causal issues, like the civil war and economic meltdown, are not themselves addressed.