Earlier this week, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan.
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), 100, 000 people are facing immediate starvation, and a further 1 million are said to be on the brink of famine. Further, around 42% of South Sudan’s population, which amounts to 4.9 million people, are “in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance”.
Formally, three measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger must be met before a food security crisis technically becomes a famine.
Firstly, what this declaration means is that at least 20 per cent of households in South Sudan are facing extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope. Secondly, acute malnutrition rates are in excess of 30 per cent. Finally, the death rate in South Sudan exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.
Similar food crises in Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen are on the brink of famine. Whilst previous famines include southern Somalia in 2011, southern Sudan in 2008, Gode in the Somali region of Ethiopia in 2000, North Korea in 1996, Somalia in 1991-92 and Ethiopia in 1984-1985, the prospect of such widespread and concurrent famine is unprecedented in modern times.
The common thread is conflict. In 2013, a political split between South Sudanese President Salva Kirr and then Vice President Riek Machar escalated into military violence. Since then the fighting has developed along ethnic lines – Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group against Machar’s Nuer ethnic group, with other ethnic groups and grievances being drawn into the conflict. African Union investigators have reported massacres, mass rapes and forced cannibalism. As is invariably the case, civilians bear the greatest brunt of the conflict – since 2013 there have been over 3 million people displaced from their homes. As World Food Programme (WFP) director and representative in South Sudan, Joyce Luma, bluntly put it: “This famine is man-made.”
South Sudan is a largely agricultural society, and the conflict has disrupted the production and distribution of food. With falling crop production, dying livestock and declining accessibility to food, inflation has soared. In turn, the UN notes that inflation of up to 800% year-on-year has caused the price of basic foodstuffs to skyrocket and exceed family budgets.
“Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive,” said the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in South Sudan, Serge Tissot. “For months there has been a total reliance on whatever plants [farmers] can find and fish they can catch,” he added.
“People have been pushed to the brink, [they are] surviving on what they can find to eat in swamps,” said Emma Jane Drew, Oxfam’s humanitarian program manager in South Sudan.
Women and children are the ones who suffer most from food and nutritional deficiencies. It is estimated that more than one million children are acutely malnourished across South Sudan, and over a quarter of a million are already severely malnourished.
“If we do not reach these children with urgent aid many of them will die,” said Jeremy Hopkins, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan.
According to Justin Forsyth, UN Assistant Secretary-General, “Nobody should be dying of starvation in 2017. There is enough food in the world, we have enough capability in terms of the humanitarian community,” Indeed, statistics demonstrate that we have more than enough food to feed the current global population, which exceeds 7 billion, and even enough to feed the estimated 9-10 billion global population by 2050. The problem, of course, is food access and security.
As for Sudan, in the short term it is imperative that more humanitarian assistance is provided and humanitarian agencies have unrestricted access to those communities suffering the most. President Kiir has promised this access, despite suggestions that the Sudanese government has blocked some food aid, and reports of humanitarian convoys and supplies being looted and coming under attack by either rebel or government forces.
Humanitarian support in Sudan is already at unprecedented levels. FAO, UNICEF and WFP, together with other partners, have conducted massive relief operations since the conflict began, and intensified those efforts throughout 2016 as the crises escalated. FAO has provided emergency livelihood kits to more than 2.3 million people to help them source food, and has also vaccinated more than 6 million livestock to prevent further loss. In 2016, WFP provided a record 4 million people in South Sudan with food assistance — including cash assistance worth US$13.8 million, and over 265,000 metric tonnes of food and nutrition supplies. UNICEF aims to treat 207,000 children for malnutrition in 2017, and provide immunization services, safe water and sanitation which also prevents recurring malnutrition.
The full ameliorative potential of emergency humanitarian action cannot be realised whilst the conflict persists, especially with the government a party to conflicts. In the longer term, and for enduring food access and security, a permanent ceasefire is necessary, with perpetrators of war crimes brought to account. “[T]here is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security”, lamented Ms Luma (WFP).
President Kirr and his former deputy Machar signed a peace deal in August 2015 and formed a unity government in April 2016 – certainly a positive starting point – but that has not stopped the fighting, which has to-date killed an estimated 50, 000 people. Moreover, as conflict continues between rebels, armed militias and government forces, pushing South Sudan to the brink of all-out ethnic civil war which could destabilise the entire region, allegations of atrocities committed against women and children and warning signs of a “Rwanda-like” genocide continue to mount.
“There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages,” Yasmin Sooka, chairwoman of a three-member Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, warned in December last year. “The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.”
Famine does not occur in isolation. Whilst shorter term climatic factors may be relevant, the common theme is conflict. And the primary casualties and sufferers of civil war are civilian. A more robust response to the South Sudanese crisis is required – humanitarian aid is essential, but it is not going to solve the situation. The causes of the conflict and faction leaders must be targeted in a multilateral regional effort towards a peaceful governmental transition and a lasting peace. Sanctions, arms embargoes, and enhanced peacekeeping operations may be necessary, and a regional court for prosecuting perpetrators of crimes is a must.
Likewise, a new approach to food security and international humanitarian aid may be required. The situation in South Sudan could be compounded by drought, predicted this year across much of eastern Africa. With a changing climate, the potential for food crises to emerge or be exacerbated by climatic events will grow. If the international community is serious about eliminating hunger and confronting these challenges, a development model based on charity and aid must give way to one based on food as a human right, with food producers and governments held to greater account.
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