Nearly half of South Sudan's citizens will face severe hunger this year as the war-torn nation teeters on the brink of famine, according to a new report on food security released Wednesday.
Some 4.6 million people, or about 40 percent of the country's population, are expected to experience emergency levels of food insecurity by July, said the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a mechanism which measures malnutrition and food availability. Up to 15 percent of children under five in the hardest hit areas are already believed to be suffering from acute malnutrition, which can be fatal.
The forecast is nearly double the number of people who were grappling with hunger just a few months ago, with nearly a quarter of a million children at "significant risk," according to UNICEF. The deteriorating situation is a result of ongoing fighting in the country's 17-month civil conflict, which has displaced millions from their homes, prevented farmers from planting crops, disrupted normal markets for food, and sent the country's economy into a tailspin.
"Millions of people in South Sudan are trapped by a terrible mix of brutal conflict, rising hunger, and a deepening economic crisis," Joyce Luma, the head of the World Food Program in South Sudan, said in a statement to reporters. "A staggering number of people are going hungry."
Though 3.8 million of the nation's people were severely food insecure in 2014, South Sudan avoided famine after the arrival of good rains and an international humanitarian effort that cost more than a billion dollars — but the possibility of such a disaster persists.
"The risk is there, the preconditions are there for some of those communities to end up in a catastrophe," Erminio Sacco, chief technical adviser for the Food and Agriculture Organization in South Sudan, told VICE News. "To a certain extent, last July we were able to exclude the possibility of famine because there was some green harvest coming in, but now we don't know how much the [displaced people] and the host communities can plant this year because of the current fighting."
Normal food markets have also been upended, as fewer traders are able to import food from neighboring countries due to security risks and South Sudan's collapsing economy. Oil revenues, which are South Sudan's financial lifeblood, have fallen by roughly half owing to a steep drop in crude prices and fighting that has damaged oil fields. The value of the South Sudanese pound to the US dollar has fallen accordingly.
"South Sudan is spiraling into an economic free fall, and people are struggling with skyrocketing food prices and an ever-rising cost of living," Zlatko Gegic, country director for Oxfam in South Sudan, said in a statement.
The IPC notes that 610,000 of the nation's urban poor lack market access because of the collapsing economy, indicating that hunger is spreading from conflict-affected rural areas to more stable towns. There have been crippling shortages of flour, fuel, and bottled water in the capital Juba, with reports of civilians selling off their assets in order to buy food.
The war has disrupted another vital food and revenue source: cattle. As herders flee the conflict, neglected livestock populations have experienced die-offs from disease. The presence of cattle outside of traditional grazing areas has further strained food production, as animals encroach on croplands in peaceful areas.
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The IPC figures may actually underestimate the extent of the food insecurity because they do not take into account effects of recent fighting in May. Over the last month, coinciding with the start of the planting season, a drastic uptick of violence in South Sudan's three most embattled states has forced over 100,000 people to abandon their homes, bringing the number of displaced people during the conflict to some 2 million total.
"Last year many of these displaced people had to either leave behind their harvest and run away from the villages or they couldn't plant at all," said Sacco. "If they miss the possibility to plant this year as well it is going to be an additional disaster, and the food gap is going to stretch into 2016."
Aid workers on the ground in Unity state, which has been most affected by the clashes, say that there are already further signs of deterioration from the fighting.
"The effect of that is a higher crisis in the area in terms of the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable in the area, including the children under five and the pregnant and lactating women," Joel Makii, nutrition adviser for the humanitarian agency CARE International, told VICE News. "In our facilities we are seeing high numbers of malnourished children being presented."
Aid workers are finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs. In parts of Unity, government soldiers manning checkpoints have prevented them from reaching civilians in need, while international humanitarian workers were forced to evacuate ahead of the fighting. The UN has said that more than 300,000 civilians in desperate need of live-saving assistance are out of reach.
"Getting humanitarian access is becoming critical for preventing humanitarian catastrophe in the most affected areas," said Sacco.
But South Sudan's government is clamping down on humanitarians through other means as well. The country's parliament passed a sweeping bill earlier this month regulating relief organizations, adding new bureaucratic layers while limiting the number of foreigners to only 20 percent of each aid organization's workforce.
Humanitarian groups insist that this could have "catastrophic" consequences, arguing that it is impossible for them to hire high numbers of local staff in a country with more than 70 percent adult illiteracy.
The bill would also force aid groups to direct their financing through South Sudanese banks, which are widely viewed as corrupt, and allow the government to impose unspecified fees.
Meanwhile, humanitarians face a funding shortfall. With conflicts elsewhere in the world garnering more attention, and South Sudan's leaders showing no willingness to end this war, aid workers are concerned that donor fatigue may be setting in.
"The needs are overwhelming at a time when resources are short," Luma said, noting that the World Food Program is contending with a budget shortfall of $230 million. "We need significantly more funding, not only to continue our existing assistance but also to scale up to support more people as the situation worsens."
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