The View from Southern Sudan

Silke Pietzsch reports on the region's failed harvests and rising tensions.

A conversation with ACF’s Senior Food Security & Livelihoods Advisor

You're back from southern Sudan. What's happening there?

I visited our teams in southern Sudan to evaluate our food security and livelihoods programs and to see for myself what the humanitarian situation is like on the ground. Southern Sudan is in a very fragile state. People are just beginning to recover and return to their homes after 20 years of civil war that killed two million people and forced another four million to flee their villages. The war between the north and south officially ended five years ago with the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, but displacements are still a reality and the remnants of war are everywhere—you often see children playing on old tanks or in bombed out buildings. And while Sudan just underwent its first national election since 1986, tensions will likely only rise as the country moves towards its historic referendum on southern independence scheduled for early 2011.

"20 years of civil war killed two million people and forced another four million to flee their villages."

In the midst of all this, southern Sudan is facing severe food shortages. We did assessments in two states—Warrap and Northern Bar El Gazhal—that show families’ food reserves entirely depleted after an unusually poor harvest. As in many places, southern Sudan experiences a period of routine food scarcity between harvests called a “hunger gap.” We’re very concerned because this year’s gap will last about seven months, which is twice the norm for the region.

Why were harvests so bad?

Last summer an extended dry spell delayed the planting season by several weeks, which shortened the planting season and really limited crop production. For example, the autumn harvests in Warrap state produced enough food for only four months of the year. In Northern Bar El Gazhal, the average family only harvested two months-worth of food. In fact, this is the third year in a row that families have been devastated by failed harvests. Last year sporadic rainfall and pest infestations badly damaged crops, and in 2008, flooding wiped out a lot of the harvest. So the last few years have been extremely difficult for people who are entirely reliant on subsistence agriculture. High food prices in local markets and insufficient household income also contribute to the growing food crisis in the region.

How are people coping?

"We’re very concerned because this year’s gap will last seven months, which is twice the norm for the region."

Our teams are witnessing families skipping meals and drastically reducing their daily caloric intake to stretch very limited food supplies. We’re most concerned about the families that have just returned from years of displacement without any livestock or other assets to sell in exchange for food. These are the poorest, most desperate families that will resort to irreversible coping mechanisms like selling their land or migrating out of the area in search of food. Even families with productive assets like animals, seeds and tools will begin to sell these off, which will likely plunge them further into poverty and put future harvests at risk. This downward spiral could have a destructive, long-term impact on already struggling families.

How has ACF responded?

We’ve worked in southern Sudan for over two decades, implementing programs in nutrition, food security, livelihoods, and water, sanitation and hygiene. In response to the food crisis, we’ve scaled up these programs to reach more people in dire need of assistance. Our first priority is treating acutely malnourished children in our in-patient and out-patient nutrition programs and training local health workers to diagnose and treat this deadly condition.

We’re also working to tackle the root causes of malnutrition through a variety of initiatives. We’re distributing seeds and tools, implementing micro-gardening projects in communities, conducting trainings to improve agricultural techniques and increase crop yields, and giving small cash grants to help people generate income and diversify their livelihoods. Our grants have helped a number of women start small businesses like hair salons and restaurants, which will give them enough income to buy food for their families. It’s crucial that our programs help boost the local economy rather than undermine it, so we make a point of purchasing our tools and other products from vendors in the area.

"We’re working to tackle the root causes of malnutrition through a variety of initiatives."

Finally, we understand that clean water and good sanitation and hygiene are vital to preventing malnutrition. We’re providing families with access to clean drinking water by digging wells and restoring water points, and we’re promoting healthy practices through latrine construction and public awareness campaigns to control outbreaks of water-borne illnesses.

What's needed in the region?

Unfortunately, the needs in the region are tremendous and far outstrip the resources currently provided by aid agencies. We’re calling for a robust package of short- and long-term assistance to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. First of all, affected households need immediate food assistance. We’re also advocating for large-scale seed and tool distributions across the region to support the 2010 agricultural season; surveillance and early warning systems to detect and predict levels of food insecurity and malnutrition; more cash transfer programs and support for small businesses and diversified livelihoods; and investments in social and hunger safety net programs to prevent future spikes in food insecurity and malnutrition. We’re calling attention to these issues because it’s important that people understand what’s at stake.