Spiraling toward catastrophe in South Sudan

December 27, 2016
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

A serious humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the world’s youngest nation — beyond the glare of the international media spotlight. Concern is working to hold back the tide in a remote, forgotten region.

For three years there have been waves of violence and conflict in South Sudan, driving over three million people from their homes, over of a million of them fleeing the country altogether. Since July of this year the situation has worsened, with thousands of families crossing the border into Uganda every week. On just one day, December 13, over 7,000 people arrived in the neighboring country, seeking refuge.

Concern is working in the displacement camps in Juba and Bentiu, as well as BidiBidi in Uganda, which is set to become the biggest refugee camp in the world. We are providing shelter, water, sanitation, and nutrition services.

Food distributions in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan.

A food distribution in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan. Concern has been supplying 37,000 households per quarter with sorghum, vegetable oil, and lentils or beans. For under five children and pregnant or lactating mothers there’s a corn/soya blend to supplement. Photo: Kieran McConville

Signs of trouble ahead

But outside of the camps and away from the conflict flashpoints, another mostly unreported crisis is looming. In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, huge numbers of people have had their livelihoods devastated by the economic fallout from the conflict. The South Sudanese pound has plunged in value and in October of 2016 the national inflation rate was over 800%  — the highest in the world. Coupled with border closures, this has made it impossible for already-stressed families to survive without assistance.

Ayak Bol says she and her family have been surviving on wild leaves, fruit and roots, barely enough to sustain them.

“We are distributing emergency food aid to 37,000 families every quarter — and that’s just barely containing the problem,” sayd Concern Program Director, Chris Oyua. “Many people are hovering on the verge of starvation and the malnutrition levels among children are the highest since we started keeping records 15 years ago.”

The situation is now so bad that many families are resorting to desperate measures. At one Concern food distribution site, mother of five Ayak Bol says she and her family have been surviving on wild leaves, fruit and roots, barely enough to sustain them. “I have no breast milk,” Ayak says. “My baby is always crying. I have no hope. Without you we would have no future at all.”

Ayak Bol at a food distribution in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan

Ayak Bol at a food distribution being carried out by Concern Worldwide and World Food Programme (WFP) in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan. Ayak, a mother of five, says she can no longer breast feed her 7 month old because of hunger. Photo: Kieran McConville

Scrambling to keep up

Concern is supporting the local health authorities with a massive child nutrition program. In the town of Nyamlel, young mother Aweng Akon arrives with her ten-month-old baby, Adut. “Normally at this age she should weigh between 15 and 22 pounds. “When she arrived here she weighed just under 10 pounds,” says Concern Emergency Nutritionist, Stella Edong. “She was severely acutely malnourished. We’ve seen a huge spike in cases like Adut — and this is post-harvest, which is the best case scenario. In the coming months this is going to get a lot worse.”

“Over the past ten years this region has gradually been forgotten by many — the number of NGOs working here fell from 180 to around 40.” — Chris Oyua

To illustrate the seriousness of the problem, figures show that this year over 150,000 people from Northern Bahr el Ghazal have made the crossing into Sudan, some even seeking refuge in Darfur.

“Over the past ten years this region has gradually been forgotten by many — the number of NGOs working here fell from 180 to around 40,” according to Chris Oyua. “We have quadrupled our staff numbers and are doing everything we can, but we are literally trying to hold back the tide. It’s almost overwhelming. We are on the verge of a catastrophe.”


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