Four million people in South Sudan on “the edge of disaster”

November 29, 2016
Written by Kristin Myers
Photo by Noel Molony

The world’s youngest nation, besieged by conflict, is in the grips of its worst hunger crisis in years.

UPDATE: According to a recently released World Food Programme Report, food security in South Sudan will likely deteriorate further in the first few months of the new year. An estimated 4.6 million people will be severely food insecure between the months of January and April 2017 — a 28% increase on current figures. Northern Bahr el Ghazal continues to face the highest levels of hunger, with 59% of the population severely food insecure.

As alarming as these figures are, it is believed they will worsen during the peak of South Sudan’s lean season (May to July) next year. Though food insecurity normally spikes during this time, it is projected that next year will bring the highest levels ever seen during this period.


One third of the country facing hunger

According to the UN, one third of South Sudan’s people — nearly four million people — are facing food security risk, with some regions more vulnerable than others. The country has been wracked with violence almost since its birth in 2011, and the conflict has had a devastating impact on food production and availability. Millions are now food insecure, meaning they lack the reliable and consistent access to food necessary to sustain them for long stretches of time.

“The situation in the country around food security is extremely serious, especially for young children.” – Noel Molony, Interim Country Director

Northern Bahr el Ghazal (NBeG) in northern South Sudan is one of the country’s most vulnerable regions. It has seen a protracted economic crisis and market failure, and many of its residents have depleted (or even completely exhausted) their meager assets just trying to survive. 86% of the population in NBeG was food insecure as of July this year, with nearly half severely so. This is an alarming increase from last year, and the most dire level of hunger since the outbreak of conflict in 2013.

“The situation in the country around food security is extremely serious, especially for young children, who are suffering the most from a lack of daily variety in their food,” says Noel Molony, Concern’s Interim Country Director.

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Vulnerable mothers are provided Plumpy’Nut (a ‘ready-to-use therapeutic food’ for young children) and other food items at the Gor Machar health clinic to help feed their children suffering from moderate acute malnutrition. Photo: Noel Molony

“Current humanitarian interventions prevented a total tragedy,” he continued. “However, we are on the edge of catastrophic conditions for the citizens of South Sudan, with agricultural production and the recent harvest seriously affected by fighting and climate change, devaluation of the South Sudanese pound so people can no longer afford basic food items, markets with limited supplies, and an escalating civil war in numerous locations all over the country. On top of all this, the country is also struggling with a serious outbreak of malaria.”

Violence disrupting food supplies

For Anur Bol, any day that she can eat more than once is a good day. Married to a 70-year-old man who is not able to help care for the family, the 30-year-old mother of seven is the backbone of her household of 12. Her home is one of thousands in northern South Sudan that has been increasingly visited by hunger.

“I leave home early in the morning and spend long hours in the bush in search of firewood and charcoal,” Bol says. “When I work hard on a given day, my household is able to have two meals a day, one mid-morning and another late in the evening.”

Concern staff member Albina assesses mothers and their recovering children affected by severe acute malnutrition. Photo: Noel Malony

Concern staff member Albino assesses mothers and their recovering children affected by severe acute malnutrition. Photo: Noel Molony

Food insecurity here has been driven by a number of factors, and chief among those is conflict. Renewed violence over the summer has internally displaced 36,000 according to UN estimates, preventing farmers in crop production areas from harvesting. Many lost their livelihoods, as well as savings and food stores, when they fled the recent fighting that killed more than 300. As Concern and its partners showed in the 2015 Global Hunger Index, there is a clear link between conflict and hunger, as fighting interrupts trade, contributes to inflation, and makes it difficult and dangerous for farmers to till and seed.

The falling value of the South Sudanese pound has only increased hardship for the country’s poorest.

Every year, South Sudan faces a “lean season” — a period of cold weather and flooding or severe dry spells during which there are few crops to harvest — and farmers frequently rely on wild foods in the forest and food aid to survive. Poor harvests this year have extended the lean season, leading to an increased demand for a dwindling supply of food. This situation, coupled with the devaluation of the South Sudanese Pound, has led to soaring prices for basic food items like oil, salt, sugar, maize, and sorghum.

The serious decline in the value of the South Sudanese pound has only increased hardship for the country’s poorest, who do not have the assets to cope with the rising prices of food and medicine (such as antimalarials) and must now devote larger and larger portions of their income to covering basic needs.

Mothers sits on blanket with children

Anur Bol sits with her two young children. Photo: Concern Worldwide

Many families are no longer able to afford protein or maintain a varied diet, and because almost all resources are devoted to buying food, there’s no money left for hygiene products like soap, or medicine. Many people — particularly children — are now suffering from diarrhea and other stomach illnesses.

“I can only afford to buy less than half a pound of groundnut paste, a small portion of okra, and less than half a pound of fish powder to eat with the sorghum and wild vegetables,” explains Anur. “Market prices have become unfriendly; in 2014, we were spending 80 South Sudanese Pounds [currently 15 cents USD] for a malwa [7.5 pounds] of sorghum, but this year between June and October, a malwa of sorghum was going for 300 South Sudanese Pounds.”

For Anur, whose family is extremely deprived, this means that her youngest child, one-year-old Rezeek, has become malnourished and required three visits over the last eight months to a stabilization center, where the most severe cases are treated. The extent of malnutrition is taking a huge toll on the health of mothers and children in this area of South Sudan, but Concern is working hard to reach children before their condition becomes as severe as Rezeek’s. In just the two counties of Aweil North and Aweil West, Concern Worldwide has recently treated over 8,000 children under the age of five with severe acute malnutrition.

Concern staff with mothers and children in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan

Concern Staff member Pauline with several mothers and their children outside a Concern Stabilization Centre in Nyamlell. Photo: Noel Molony

What Concern is doing about it

Concern Worldwide has noted a 75% increase in children in Northern Bahr el Ghazal with severe acute malnutrition this year, and, after conducting extensive screenings in the cities of Aweil West and Aweil North, estimated that around 30% of the population is malnourished. To help provide treatment for malnutrition, Concern is supporting three stabilization centers, and 42 outpatient therapeutic programs where people can receive nutrient-rich ready-to-use therapeutic foods (or RUTFs, for short) such as Plumpy’Nut. We have also provided children with antimalarial tablets to help control the malaria outbreak.

To ensure that children across the community are receiving all the nutrients they need, Concern has also reached nearly 20,000 kids through a supplementary feeding program, which provides all families in the community with nutritious and diverse foods to add to their existing diet. Concern has also conducted trainings on Community Management of Acute Malnutrition, in collaboration with partner organizations. In coordination with the World Food Program, Concern has begun a series of food distributions, targeting close to 40,000 households.


 

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