In April 2014, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon warned that South Sudan was on the brink of famine, and that without immediate action up to one million people would starve.
Nearly two years later, aid groups and the U.N. are warning that the risk of starvation has now reached an all-time high. On Monday, the U.N. said that 2.8 million people — around 25 percent of South Sudan’s population — are in urgent need of aid. At least 40,000 people, the U.N. report added, are on “the brink of catastrophe.”
In a phone call with Foreign Policy from Juba on Tuesday, Oxfam Country Director Zlatko Gegic said he has spent seven years working in what is now South Sudan, but had never seen worse conditions.
“Women have had to wade through forests and swamps for days to access aid,” he said Oxfam had learned. “Women who cannot make the journey are forced to rely on others for survival.”
The prospect of mass starvation has been on Western minds in recent weeks, primarily because of the dreadful images emerging from the besieged Syrian town of Madaya, where humanitarian assistance was blocked by forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad. More than 20 people starved to death in December alone. After international outrage, Madaya received some aid, but on Tuesday residents warned again that supplies are already running out.
According to Gegic, difficulties accessing food shipments in South Sudan can be blamed largely on President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar’s failure to implement the peace agreement they both signed in August. Ongoing fighting has made it impossible for aid convoys to deliver food to besieged areas, particularly in Unity State, one of the areas where violence has been worst.
Civil war broke out in the young country after Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup against him in 2013. Since then, thousands of people have been killed and millions more have been forced from their homes. Kiir and Machar have signed at least seven peace deals intended to end the conflict, all of which appear to be nothing more than a waste of time. Machar has still not returned to Juba, and Kiir recently bought military helicopters in a move the United Nations panel of experts on South Sudan said “emboldened those in the government who are seeking a military solution to the conflict at the expense of the peace process.”
Gegic told FP Tuesday that Kiir and Machar have proven they are unwilling to implement these deals and that it is now up to outside players to pressure the two leaders into restoring peace. Without that pressure, he warned that South Sudan will plummet further into crisis.
“Aid access is being affected by ongoing fighting and unfortunately the inability of the international community to exercise effective pressure on the parties in conflict,” he said. “Putting money in this country for humanitarian aid simply to save lives doesn’t make sense if a sustainable political solution is not there.”
Gegic added the U.S. alone cannot put pressure on the United Nations Security Council to implement sanctions on Kiir, Machar, and other major players in the conflict. He said the African Union’s failure to force the two rivals to strike a reasonable agreement is furthering the crisis, and that “the Security Council bears massive responsibility for being slow in their response.” Russia, for example, which holds a permanent seat on the Security Council, has refused to support arms embargoes or sanctions against Kiir and Machar.
But even if the African Union isn’t doing enough to stop the conflict from further spiraling out of control, member states are well-aware of the worsening conditions on the ground in South Sudan. An October AU report outlined some of the most gruesome violence recorded in the conflict, which included “draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others from one ethnic community to drink the blood or eat burnt human flesh.” A Feb. 1 report written by an AU-backed monitoring group said at least 50 civilians were suffocated by government forces after being shoved into a shipping container.
Now, Gegic said, the international community has the chance to act through a combination of increased aid and political resolution. But with the world’s eyes on Syria, Yemen, and the growing refugee crisis in Europe, he worries that South Sudan will be forgotten — and then it will be too late. For now, many displaced people are surviving off of plants and small fish they find in swamps. But the dry season could take even that small sense of security away from already desperate populations, and because fighting prevented recent planting and harvesting cycles, there will be little food to go around.
“We can say 40,000 starving people out of a population of 11 million is not really a great number,” Gegic said. “But 40,000 at catastrophe level? Those are people who can start dying tomorrow out of hunger.”
Photo Credit: TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images