Time Is Running Out To Stop Famine In South Sudan

The last famine in Africa came from a drought. This one comes from a war.

NAIROBI, Kenya — Unless something changes soon, South Sudan's ongoing humanitarian crisis will see a new label: "famine."

More than 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting that broke out in December. They've left their homes, their possessions — and their fields. That means they are, above all, hungry.

"If nothing is done in the coming months, we will be heading to a famine," said Rolland Kaya Mouanda, deputy head of mission for Doctors Without Borders (which goes by its French acronym, MSF) in South Sudan. "People who are supposed to farm... to bring more food into their families and the households, are in the bushes, and many of them are dependent of humanitarian aid.

"Young people or strong men," he added, "are busy with military activities."

Women, meanwhile, are trying to feed their children — and when those children are malnourished, that can mean pulling them away from the rest of the family. Mouanda said MSF is admitting children suffering from malnutrition at double last year's rates in some places.

"When you admit the child, you will have a caretaker, a woman. And this woman would [otherwise] have the manpower to go and farm," he said. The malnutrition program can last anywhere from two weeks one month — a long time to pull people out of the fields who are otherwise producing and cooking food in their communities.

The food crisis has gotten so bad that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded an alarm last week, estimating that 3.9 million people are at risk for starvation if nothing changes.

The last famine in the region came in 2011, when the region saw its worst drought in 60 years.

"What we saw in the Horn [of Africa region] three years ago was children dying while the world waited for the official declaration of a famine," said James Elder, a UNICEF spokesman. "Half were already dead by the time a famine was declared....We can't wait. Children can't wait. Resources can't wait. Funding can't wait."

But this situation is different than the one seen three years ago, humanitarian workers say, because the food crisis is not about bad weather. Instead, it's about South Sudan's return to violent conflict.

"It's a manmade disaster," said Mouanda. "It's manmade because we are talking about armed conflict between two parties, which of course led to the displacement of thousands and thousands of people...[and] the destruction of health centers, in a country where the population has no other resort than relying on the international community."

South Sudan became independent just over three years ago, but renewed fighting broke out in the country last December, as the former vice president led a rebellion that began in Juba and has spread throughout the country.

Even in times of peace, South Sudan has had little economy to speak of, and no exports apart from oil, which it stops exporting, from time to time, over disputes with its northern neighbor, the Republic of Sudan, from which it seceded in 2011.

All of that makes the country heavily dependent on international aid.

The World Food Program is leading the crisis response with deliveries of food by road, river, and air, to 2,000 distribution points once every 30 days. In June alone, the group put food in the hands of 1.4 million people.

But this is South Sudan's rainy season, and much of the country is impassable by road. That means WFP relies on airdrops and airlifts, which are seven times as expensive as delivering food by road.

And that means the funding gap for South Sudan's humanitarian needs — and there's always a funding gap — is critical.

"The money that has been given by the international community thus far has been generous and saved lives – although only half of the funding for the U.N. appeal that's supposed to provide aid to people through the rest of this year has come in," Tariq Riebl, country director for Oxfam in South Sudan, told BuzzFeed in an email.

Back in January, the U.N. estimated that the humanitarian crisis brought on by the fighting would require $1.3 billion in aid. It revised that sum upward, to $1.8 billion, in May.

A donor conference in Oslo in late May brought another $600 million in pledges, most of which will go to the WFP. But one-third of those pledges still hasn't been paid up.

Nearly half of the unpaid funds were promised by three donors — the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission. (All three of those donors have already contributed $100 million each earlier this year.)

If the international community is falling short of its needs and pledges, the South Sudanese government may be doing the same. South Sudan has spent at least $1 billion on weapons since the fighting began in December, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Last month, China, one of South Sudan's biggest oil customers, sold $38 million worth of weapons to the youngest African country, the magazine also reported.

The politics of South Sudan's ongoing conflict may be complicated, Elder says, but with funding, averting a famine is far more straightforward.

"The logistics of South Sudan are very difficult," he conceded, "but when it comes to a nutritional crisis, we know what works. We know how to reach those children."

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