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This was to be the first generation to grow up without war.
It was just two-and-a-half years ago that 99 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence, ending decades of conflict and ushering in a new chapter as an autonomous nation. In the past two months, the unity and optimism that was so palpable in 2011 has all but vanished. What started as a political struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar spiraled into widespread violence that has killed thousands and threatens to tear South Sudan apart.
The scale and depth of the immediate needs are shocking: more than 880,000 people have fled their homes to escape fighting. An estimated 716,500 of them are displaced inside South Sudan. The majority do not have even the most basic services like clean water, sanitation, food, shelter and health care.
But the ripple effects of the conflict are just as insidious. An estimated 3.7 million people are now facing acute or emergency levels of food insecurity, a number that will rise in the coming months if people are not able to return home and begin planting by March before the rains come. That means we have one month to ensure that civilians are safe to return home and resume their lives. If we do not, an entire generation of South Sudan’s children — the future of this nascent country — could be condemned to a lifetime of poverty, hunger, disease and wasted potential, simply because conflict prevented them from having enough to eat.
In two months, violence has shattered South Sudan’s fragile markets. Trade is disrupted. Food supplies were looted. Shops were destroyed. In Bentiu, the capital of Unity State where some of the fiercest fighting took place and where Concern Worldwide is working to deliver safe drinking water and provide sanitation, among other services, very little food is available. Whatever is there is now too expensive for families, many of whom lost their homes and livelihoods to the fighting. Our teams are already hearing from families that they are eating less, with some saying that they are scavenging for plants like water lilies to feed themselves and their families.
This is not only happening in Bentiu, but all across South Sudan.
We are already seeing malnutrition rise among South Sudan’s internally displaced children as a result of the conflict. In Juba, our teams are screening children under five years old for malnutrition. Of the more than 7,100 children we have screened, approximately 6 percent of them are malnourished and require treatment. The tragic reality is that they are among the lucky ones. They made it to a U.N. base where they can receive food, medical care, clean water and other services, however basic, fromConcern Worldwide and other humanitarian organizations.
The majority are not that fortunate. Because insecurity and widespread looting made it impossible for humanitarian organizations to get to outlying areas, less than half of those displaced inside South Sudan have received humanitarian assistance.
Getting people back to their communities in time to plant for the next harvest is paramount. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of employment in South Sudan. If crops are not planted, much of the country’s food and income supply will be decimated. Food will become even harder to come by than it already is and prices will rise even higher, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the majority of South Sudanese to afford to feed their families.
Malnutrition will undoubtedly rise and lives, mostly children’s, will be lost simply because they did not have enough food to eat. Those children who do survive are likely to be irreversibly stunted — cognitively, physically or both — because they did not get enough nutrients to develop and grow.
The consequences of poor nutrition in early childhood are wide-reaching. On an individual level, a stunted child can lose as much as 10 percent of her lifetime earnings as an adult. Countries with high levels of malnutrition can lose as much as eight percent of their gross domestic product because of stunting. As one of the poorest countries in the world, this is something South Sudan cannot afford.
We have one month to get families back to their communities and planting. This can be the generation of South Sudanese whose lives are not defined by war, poverty and hunger. But all hostilities must come to an end and peace and security have to be restored so that civilians feel that it is safe enough to return home and get back to carving out lives for themselves and their children.
Less than one month for people to return to their fields before the rains, and plant the crops they need to survive, to and avoid a preventable hunger crisis. The clock is ticking.