Hunger in South Sudan: Understanding a decade of food crisis

January 27, 2022
Photo by Samir Bol / Concern Worldwide

A complex balance between conflict and climate change has left South Sudan consistently ranking among the world’s hungriest countries. Here’s what you need to know.

The world’s youngest country has faced food security crises throughout its ten years of independence. A complex balance between conflict and climate change has left South Sudan consistently ranking among the world’s hungriest countries. After a famine in 2017, the country is now once again facing similar conditions throughout the Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Warrap states, due in large part to renewed violence, the worst flooding in almost 60 years, and the impacts of COVID-19. Here’s what to know about hunger in South Sudan in 2022 — and what can be done to end it. 

Hunger in South Sudan by the numbers:

  • 7.2 million people in food crisis
  • 2.4 million people at risk of famine if they don’t receive aid
  • 1.4 million children suffering from acute malnutrition
  • 483,000 malnourished pregnant or lactating women
  • 108,000 people at risk of famine-likely conditions 

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Conflict and hunger create a vicious cycle for South Sudanese

One of the biggest causes and maintainers of hunger in South Sudan over the country’s ten-year history is conflict. Even before its peaceful secession from Sudan, South Sudan was plagued by intermittent violence and insecurity. The country’s most recent famine (in 2017) was fuelled by conflict. In light of renewed fighting, parts of the country are once again threatened with the same possibility. 

Hunger is both a cause and consequence of communal violence in South Sudan. Conflict reduces agricultural productivity and harvests. The lack of food that results from this is correlated with an increase in poaching and cattle theft in affected areas. This, in turn, leads to added tension and conflict. This violence impacts the work of humanitarian organizations (including Concern), and can often interrupt work for weeks at a time. It’s not uncommon for UN agencies and other NGOs to call for an immediate end to violence in areas where civilians are otherwise unable to be reached with food distributions or even adequate food security assessments.

Women collect food rations from a Concern Worldwide and World Vision food distribution in the Aweil area, South Sudan. The general food distribution occurs every two weeks, running from April to August. (Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide)

Displacement brings additional challenges

Over 2 million South Sudanese people have fled into neighbouring countries. An additional 1.74 million people are displaced inside the country due to conflict. When fighting started, civilians found refuge at existing United Nations bases, which have now become Protection of Civilian (or POC) sites. However, protection doesn’t mean “provided for.” As 32-year-old mother Khadra* explains at one POC camp in Juba:

“When we were at home, we had food. We worked. Life was good; you were free. So no problem.”

Khadra was forced to leave her village in 2013 in search of food, water, and — above all — safety. But being in a POC comes with “a lot of challenges… Iit is like a prison. Your children are malnourished; you are just waiting for humanitarian aid to come. It is very difficult.”

Luka Mathiang, Concern’s Nutrition Project Officer in Juba, concurs that life in a POC is not easy. While many come hoping for their basic needs to be met while in displacement, those aren’t guaranteed. Originally built to provide shelter and protection for 72 hours, and still being used years later, it’s not surprising that the conditions are dire. “There is no food, no water. You do not know if you will survive or if you will die along the way,” Luka explains. 

“Staying here is very hard, but the only thing that is okay is that you don’t hear bullets,” says another POC resident, Dukan*. 

Concern Nurse Yin Jock Deng, screens a child for malnutrition at a POC camp in Juba. (Photo: Samir Bol / Concern Worldwide)

Options are limited due to funding cuts and donor fatigue

Traditionally, the World Food Program has made food distributions in POC sites, including beans, lentils, and sorghum. But it’s not enough to get proper nourishment, despite no way of getting additional food. While only 16 out of 79 counties in South Sudan depend on food aid for at least 20% of their grains and other staples, these are the counties most affected by conflict. 

Last October, the World Food Program suspended food assistance for more than 100,000 displaced people due to budget restrictions.

This is especially worrisome in 2022, as humanitarian funding continues to fall short in South Sudan. Last October, the World Food Program suspended food assistance for more than 100,000 displaced people due to budget restrictions. A few months earlier, foreign assistance from the United Kingdom to South Sudan was cut due to austerity measures. “Without Concern in this area, children can really suffer a lot,” says Idil*, a 28-year-old mother-of-three living in a POC camp. 

“If Concern wasn’t here, children would be taken to Camp Four,” Dukan adds, referring to the euphemism civilians in POC Camps One and Three use for the local graveyard.

Nyalada is eating PlumpyNut, a food supplement given to malnourished children. Juba, South Sudan (Photo: Samir Bol / Concern Worldwide)

Nearly 87% of South Sudan depends on agriculture and livestock, creating fierce competition for scarce resources and limiting harvests

As mentioned above, part of South Sudan’s conflict is due to a lack of resources. And, while many South Sudanese don’t rely on food aid to meet their daily needs, eating enough quality food is still a challenge.

With nearly 87% of the country dependent on agriculture, livestock, and forestry, grazing land and water are often scarce commodities. One report conducted by Concern and local research organization the SUDD Institute showed that conflict in South Sudan often coincides with a recent flood or drought, a time when farmers and cattle herders are forced to temporarily or permanently relocate and share resources. These resources quickly become points of tension.  

Policies and regulations around land are limited, leaving land disputes to make up 80 to 90% of civil cases in the South Sudanese courts. These cases and disputes also limit what farmers are able to produce — thereby creating additional food and income shortages. 

An overhead view of the 2021 floods in South Sudan, the worst the country has faced since 1962. Over 200,000 people in Unity State were forced to leave their homes due to rising flood waters. (Photo: Kirk Prichard / Concern Worldwide)

Gender inequality is a major barrier to ending hunger

Some of South Sudan’s customs serve as major barriers to gender equality in the country. Traditionally, women have no decision-making powers within the household, aren’t allowed to access loans, and also lack access to water points and livestock.  They also have no land ownership rights. Land is predominantly owned by men, and inheritance practices favor male family members as well. 

Even when women can access land, the fact that they do not own it disincentivizes their investing time, money, and resources into sustainable farming practices that would offset the challenges brought on by climate change. 

Three South Sudanese women with their children

Nyabila* (32) with her four month old baby, Amel*; Sara* (also 32) with her child; Ator* with her child. All three mothers were treated at a Concern clinic for maternal and child health in South Sudan.

South Sudan is also one of the worst places to be an expecting or new mother, as malnutrition among pregnant and lactating women is alarmingly common — especially in displacement camps. Providing for children is also a challenge. “The biggest challenge is all about the needs of the children. Now they are getting greens, but they need more substance. They sometimes need rice and millet. We also need cowpeas and beans,” one mother explains. 

Mary Achol at her group vegetable plot in Panyet, which is part of Concern’s livelihoods programming in Aweil West, Northern Bahr el North, South Sudan.

With few financial safety nets in place, cash and hunger exist in a vicious cycle

Most of the grain produced in South Sudan goes through local markets, where families purchase approximately a third of whatever they produce. Recent research has shown a correlation between depending on markets to eat and hunger rates: Many who depend on markets to earn income for food or to barter their harvests don’t have cash on hand. This is most apparent in the areas of South Sudan hit hardest by conflict. 

This is one aspect of the financial crisis in South Sudan, whose main export is crude oil (the price for which has dropped), and which has suffered further economic setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With an estimated 82% of South Sudanese living below the poverty line, this means that the majority of the country lacks the financial safety nets they need to weather a financial setback or a poor harvest and still put food on the table. 

A woman starts a cooking fire at the temporary settlement built on Kok Island in the swamps of Leer County, Unity State, South Sudan. People have been hiding on the islands from fighting.

Hunger in South Sudan: What the government is doing

The Government of South Sudan is working to address food insecurity through climate change measures, investments in agriculture, and food relief to those in emergency situations. Their 2019-20 national budget allocated $2.3 million to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, which is higher than most other sectors working to address similar needs (although the defense sector received nearly 50 times that amount in the same year).

The government has also developed and adopted several climate change and environmental protection policies with the aim of improving food security for the country, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the National Environment Policy 2015-2025, Environment Policy Framework, Environment Bill, UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), and the National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA). 

South Sudanese nutrition education session

Nutrition Assistant Simon is pictured leading an educational session. (Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Concern Worldwide)

Hunger in South Sudan: What Concern is doing

Concern has been in South Sudan since the beginning — and then some. Our work is a combination of emergency response and resilience building, with a large emphasis on food security. We lead one of the nutrition programs that run in the POC camps in Juba, treating malnourished children from six months to 5 years, and offering support to pregnant and lactating women. Here are some other highlights from the last year:

  • Lifesaving emergency nutrition and health services provided to acutely malnourished children and women, reaching over 142,000 people via 78 nutrition centers. 
  • Consulted and treated more than 68,000 children and mothers via our mobile clinics in five hard-to-reach areas in Aweil North and West counties, which also provided nutrition sessions for over 90,000. 
  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene programs reached over 150,000 people in Unity State and Northern Bahr el Ghazal, including 34,000 people living in Bentiu displacement camp. 
  • Nutrition support and sufficiency for 19,000 people who took part in cash-for-work activities and were also supported with hand tools and improved staple crop seeds. 
  • Improved water access for 49,000 people as a direct response to COVID-19.

*Names changed for security purposes.

Hunger in South Sudan