In South Sudan, famine is but a word — suffering is the reality

Declaring famine means we have already failed the people of South Sudan, where one of the least discussed and most underfunded crises in the world persists.

By: /
March 24, 2017
A woman waits to be registered prior to food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, February 26, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

The beginning of 2017 saw my worst fears come true, with the declaration of famine for hundreds of thousands of people in parts of Unity State in the northern-central part of South Sudan.

For those of us working in the country and in the field of food security, the warning signs have been there since 2014.

This was not just something that happened overnight. People did not wake up on the 22nd of February and suddenly have nothing to eat. It is the result of months — in many cases, years — of prolonged hunger and conflict.

The chronic lack of funding for the crisis and the inability to establish any lasting peace means humanitarian organizations have been able to access the worst affected areas only sporadically for years.

Let’s be clear; with this famine declaration, we have failed the people of South Sudan.

Two of the thresholds needed to declare a famine (death rates and global acute malnutrition rates) are lagging indicators, which means that by the time that these thresholds are met, people are already dying.

The 2011 Somalia famine (which killed about 260,000 people) is a case in point: by the time famine was declared, it was already too late for thousands, half of them children. It’s for this reason that I have now come to think of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) phase 5 (famine) as the ‘failure phase.’

But numbers and terminology alone mean very little. Our staff on the ground in Unity State, who are working to deliver support to severely malnourished children with distended bellies and seeds to farmers who have had their homes burnt and families killed, see this first hand every day.

In the UN protection of civilian (POC) site in Bentiu, which borders the famine-affected areas, the number of people arriving from these areas has greatly risen and there are high levels of malnutrition among them. Families — including young children — are walking up to seven days to reach the POC in search of food and safety.

Conflict is a crucial driver of acute food and nutrition insecurity. In the case of South Sudan’s famine, it is the principal cause.

When people are unsettled or internally displaced, their normal livelihood routines are disrupted and to some extent completely lost. The majority of South Sudanese depend on agriculture, livestock, trade and labour for their livelihoods. In many states, because of the current conflict, these livelihood options have been completely disrupted. People can’t plant crops, nor can they tend to their animals, farms, places of trade or work.

Unsurprisingly, the conflict is having a negative knock-on impact on almost all basic needs. For instance, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased in July by 661 percent year-on-year (up from 150 percent same time last year) and food was at 778.6 percent, which is the highest in the world.

This is not sustainable.

Another worrying development is that South Sudan’s main food producing region, Greater Equatoria, is seeing deteriorating food security levels and an increase in malnutrition as the result of fighting spreading to this previously unaffected area. A separate needs assessment carried out at the end of August by CARE found that food availability and access was a major problem for many people in Eastern Equatoria.

The declaration of famine in South Sudan is meant to mobilize resources from the international community so as to help the poor and vulnerable food insecure households.

On March 17, the Government of Canada announced that it will provide of $119.25 million in funding for experienced humanitarian partners, including CARE, in response to the severe food crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

While welcome, this also demonstrates the challenge South Sudan faces, as there are numerous global crises that must compete for funding. After over three years of fighting, South Sudan remains among the least discussed and most underfunded crises in the world, despite its extraordinary scale, scope and human impact.

A huge scale up of emergency food security and livelihoods interventions (food, cash and inputs) are needed — not just in the famine declared areas, but also areas that are at risk of falling into famine.

Perhaps more importantly though, we need fighting to stop, to allow NGOs to access these areas with emergency aid and for people to cultivate, rear livestock and trade again without risk of attack.

Aid is only ever a band-aid — it does not stop fighting, and without peace the outlook remains grim.