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As Conflict Continues, Keeping Focus on South Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis

Despite escalating tensions, ACF is hard at work fulfilling basic needs for thousands in the youngest nation in the world
A South Sudanese girl washes her hands with clean water.
A South Sudanese girl washes her hands with clean water. Photo: ACF-South Sudan, T. Frank
  • A South Sudanese girl washes her hands with clean water.
  • An ACF-South Sudan staff member talks to a community member.
  • A little boy has a MUAC test, designed to detect malnutrition.
  • A South Sudanese boy eats Plumpy’nut.

The peace between Sudan and South Sudan was not to be, at least not for long. Even after the Republic of South Sudan’s independence last July, tensions remained high between the former civil war combatants. Oil fields—mainly located along the contested border region—became the focal point in a play for power that has intensified into violent clashes over last month. After months of border skirmishes between the two countries, South Sudan seized a disputed oil field in Heglig earlier this month, prompting the north’s retaliation.

Last Thursday, the United Nations drafted a Security Council resolution to make legally binding an African Union demand that Sudan and South Sudan stop clashes along the border and resume peace talks. Whether or not the resolution passes—and if it does, whether or not it has any impact—remains to be seen. But what’s clear—resolution or no resolution, warfare or none—is that the region, especially where we are working in South Sudan, suffers from a vast underlying humanitarian crisis, one that requires continued attention and an aggressive humanitarian response.

A combustible set of problems

Nearly half the population of South Sudan is food insecure, and malnutrition rates are alarmingly high. South Sudan also has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Only 4% of the nation’s arable land has been cultivated. The country is also facing a deficit in its agricultural production, suffering from a lack of rainfall due to late rains in October and November 2011. Food stocks from that harvest only lasted two months and predictions for this year’s rainy season are also poor. Water is in surplus across South Sudan but access, quality, and distribution are highly problematic. Epidemics and waterborne diseases remain in abundance and there is urgent need to develop sustainable water management systems.

Market access and food availability have also emerged as problems. Food stocks are depleted, driving people to market sooner; at market staple food prices have more than doubled from last year in most areas, making them inaccessible to many families. In addition, much of South Sudan’s food supply has historically come from Khartoum in the north; now that supply route has been cut off. South Sudan has few roads suitable for high-volume transportation between the capital, Juba, and the northern part of the country. Transfers from Darfur occur but are spotty, and a road from Uganda—the only viable neighbor with food to provide, other than Sudan—is in progress but far from complete. As a result, a growing number of families have been priced out of the market with few alternatives for feeding themselves. Access is particularly an issue in Warrap and Unity states, where most of the roads will become inaccessible during the impending rainy season. If we don’t beat the rains to deliver assistance, it will become increasingly difficult to reach affected populations.

“The stress on households will be much higher during this year’s lean season as food stocks run out before new harvests are ready. Given the sheer number of people needing food and the distorting impact that food shortages have on market dynamics—think high prices—we’re looking at a daunting scenario of widespread hunger and undernutrition.”

Silke Pietzsch, Technical Director, Action Against Hunger

Large-scale movements among the population, predating the current round of violence, are also troublesome. Since independence, tensions in the border areas have escalated and conflict became common. Displaced people from the contested area of Abyei as well as refugees from Blue Nile and South Kordofan have burdened South Sudan. The country is indeed facing a massive influx of internally displaced persons, as well as some refugees from neighboring Sudan. Since October 2010, nearly 300,000 people who were in the north returned to South Sudan, and approximately 500,000 more are expected to return between 2012 and 2013.

A combustible mix of food shortages, collapsed supply routes, high fuel prices, population displacements and military clashes have converged with dangerous implications for the South’s populations. The extent of the international community’s political and financial involvement will likely determine how this complex emergency plays out.

Putting best practices into action

Despite escalating military tensions, we’re committed to maintaining our lifesaving programs in nutrition, food security and livelihoods, and water, sanitation, and hygiene. Our teams are also developing plans to scale up our efforts along the northern border, depending on the achievement of relative security. A large-scale agriculture project is in the works, centered on the widespread distribution of seeds through voucher fairs; increasing the number of households actively engaged in agriculture is vital to producing promising food security and livelihoods, as well as nutrition, outcomes. We’re also increasing the number of people served in our therapeutic nutrition interventions, and anticipating the needs of populations returning from the north and other locations. We may even begin cash-for-work programs, providing local citizens with disposable income while stimulating local food markets, if the security climate allows it.

In South Sudan, one child in every eight dies from malnutrition before the age of five. Last year, nearly 23,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition benefited from ACF’s nutritional programs. In 2012, ACF will strengthen its prevention programs and scale up its work with acutely malnourished children.

Our operations in South Sudan have more than tripled in size over the past three years—an indication of the scope of humanitarian needs. It’s imperative that those involved in peace negotiations facilitate humanitarian access to displaced populations in the border regions, as well as in the three protocol areas. We’re committed to expanding our programs and beneficiary reach, despite the difficult security context. With your ongoing support, we can and will continue these efforts to help the South Sudanese build safe, secure, and healthy lives.

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