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‘Our Worst Fears Have Been Realized’: The Famine We Could Have Stopped in South Sudan
South Sudan just declared a famine. But it’s been years in the making and it could have been stopped.
The South Sudanese government and United Nations declared Monday a famine in parts of the country devastated by conflict. One hundred thousand people are “already starving” and nearly 5 million are in need of urgent help in war-torn South Sudan, according to U.N. humanitarian agencies.
“Our worst fears have been realized,” said Serge Tissot, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) spokesman in South Sudan. “Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.” Nearly 275,000 children are at risk of starving to death unless the international community intervenes in a rapid and meaningful way, the U.N. warned.
The worst-hit region is Unity state in the north of the country. That’s also the scene of brutal fighting between government and rebel forces — and experts say that’s no coincidence.
“Conflicts are one of the key causes of food insecurity,” Lorenzo Bellu, a senior economist for the FAO, told Foreign Policy. Violent conflict disrupted agricultural production and led to surging food prices in the country. The region is also experiencing a prolonged drought that experts blame on climate change.
In other words, the crisis is largely man-made — and could have been averted. In December, the U.N. blocked an arms embargo on South Sudan that experts say would have mitigated the conflict fueling the food shortages. And humanitarian groups urged the international community for months to funnel aid and food to South Sudan to avert famine — to little avail.
The famine has arrived, but humanitarian workers still don’t have enough resources to cope. “We are quite concerned that we do not have the resources,” said George Fominyen, a U.N. spokesman in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. “We could run out of food by the end of June. The needs are so huge; every time you are entering a new front, a new battle.”
“In 2011 after the famine that hit Somalia, the world said never again,” said Emma Jane Drew, humanitarian program manager for Oxfam in South Sudan. “The declaration of famine in South Sudan reflects the collective failure to heed the countless warnings of an ever-worsening situation.”
It’s driven the most afflicted to desperation. “People have been pushed to the brink of surviving on what they can find to eat in swamps,” Drew said.
The U.N. has a technical definition for famine to distinguish it from other variants of food insecurity. At least 20 percent of households must face extreme food shortages, 30 percent or more of the population must face acute malnutrition, and the death rate must exceed two people per 10,000 per day for a country or international bodies to declare famine. The U.N. and its members aren’t bound to take any specific actions once a famine is declared. Rather, the declaration can highlight global attention to the problem.
Humanitarian aid in the region is already thinly stretched, but it could get even worse. Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen also face “unprecedented” need for emergency food assistance to prevent famine, according to the U.S. government-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
But South Sudan’s three-year old civil war makes the situation especially dire there, making aid deliveries even trickier. “I wasn’t prepared for the shocking devastation I witnessed,” said Andrew Gilmour, U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights, last week after he traveled to areas of South Sudan ravaged by fighting between the government and rebel forces.
Civilians are caught in the middle of that fighting, with brutal results. Government soldiers and militias operate with ruthless impunity in the region, carrying out war crimes including murders, torture, forced cannibalism, and mass rape.
“It is utterly abhorrent that women in this area have to choose between getting raped or getting a livelihood,” Gilmour said. “But this seems the brutal reality of what South Sudan has become.”
Photo credit: Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty Images