A country on the brink: Millions go hungry in South Sudan

by August 23, 2015 5:00AM ET

Forty percent of the population doesn’t have enough food as fighting intensifies in the world’s newest country

South Sudan
Mary Nyabouth and two of her children.
Benedict Moran

SUDD MARSHLANDS, South Sudan — Mary Nyabouth and her six children fled fighting in her village of Nyal in late June, paddling two hours in a canoe until she reached a remote island in the swamps of Unity state.

While they are now safe from the rapidly increasing violence between rebels and government troops, they are among the 4.6 million people in South Sudan — 40 percent of the population — who do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations.

Even in times of peace, life on these islands is precarious. Nyabouth and her family live in a rough shelter with a roof made of palm leaves. About two dozen other families also sought refuge on the island. She took with her a few pots and pans, some clothes and a bag of grain she received from the United Nations World Food Program.

But after nearly two months on the island, that supply of food was rapidly running out.

“I’m scared for my family,” she said, holding her gaunt 6-month-old daughter in her arms. “When Friday comes and the food is gone, I’ll be hungry.”

Forced displacement, lack of humanitarian access and collapsed markets have created conditions for severe food insecurity and may be pushing some communities over the brink into starvation

Even before the recent fighting, South Sudan was one of the most food insecure places on Earth, importing 50 percent of its food, much of it from Uganda and other neighboring countries.

In 2011 the country gained independence from Sudan, ending a generation of war. Some thought that South Sudan, with its abundant water and arable land, would be able to feed not only itself but its neighbors too.

The civil war, which broke out less than two years later, dashed those hopes.

Children play around a government armed personnel carrier stuck in the mud weeks after a battle, south of Nyal, in south Unity state.
Benedict Moran
Simon Muok, 76, carries his grandchild, Nyachany Kuet, 5, who is sick from diarrhea.
Benedict Moran

Since fighting erupted between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to his former Vice President Riek Machar, villages were burned to the ground, towns were deserted, and more than 2 million people have been displaced.

Food prices across the country have doubled or tripled in some locations as the country’s economy struggles amid a currency shortage and rapid inflation.

“This is a time when people have run out of food, prices are going up, the war continues, people are displaced, which makes it very difficult for people to access food,” said Joyce Luma, the country director for the World Food Program.

Perhaps no other region is more at risk than Unity, in the north of the country, which has seen some of the most intense fighting.

In April government forces and allied militias launched an offensive to recapture areas they lost to the opposition. International observers and survivors who fled to neighboring towns described an onslaught of government soldiers and militia into the state.

The campaign displaced more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations, and led to allegations of forced displacement, war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch documented scores of killings, rapes and widespread pillage of civilian property during the attack and said soldiers and militia deliberately destroyed food stores and seeds intended for cultivation. The government has denied the charge.

In Nyal, in southern Unity, much of the town remained deserted weeks after the last battle. The scorched remains of burned huts sat empty. The bodies of what community members described as pro-government fighters remained where they fell on open fields, their bones picked clean by vultures.

Daniel Gai Bath, a former public official who said he left office when the civil war erupted, sat in the shade of a mango tree and recalled the assault on Mayendit, a town about a three-day walk from Nyal.

Families ran in terror. Some who were too weak to carry their children left them behind, he said.

The first night, many slept under the open skies before being chased away by yet another round of fighting. Finally, hundreds of people ended up on a nearby island, where they quickly established a makeshift colony.

Now they survive on coconuts, water lilies and the occasional fish. Bath had with him a list of 3,422 people who he said were in urgent need of additional food, cooking utensils and tarps.

“My people are there in the water,” he said. “They have nothing in their hands, nothing to shelter from the rains, no mosquito net. You can find seven or eight people under one mosquito net.”

Many of the islands in the marshland are populated by women, children, and the elderly, with few men in sight.
Benedict Moran

Without clean water or latrines and with many living in cramped conditions, displaced families quickly fall ill, with children and the elderly most at risk.

After her 1-year-old daughter didn’t stop vomiting and suffering from diarrhea for four weeks, growing weaker by the day, Elizabeth Nyantor traveled from a nearby island to a health clinic in Nyal, operated by the French charity Doctors Without Borders.

“Now it is a bit OK, but before, she was almost dead,” she said, holding her child. They would run out of food by the end of the week, she said.

For many of the country’s small-scale farmers, the timing of the latest round of fighting could not have been worse. Violence prevented thousands of families from planting in May and June, when the rains typically begin.

Tens of thousands of cattle, a traditional source of wealth and normally a readily available source of capital that can be exchanged for food in this part of the country, were stolen by pro-government fighters during the onslaught.

With no cattle and little food in the markets to purchase, some say, the country has created a perfect storm for a famine. This year’s hunger gap, or the lean period when a family has finished eating last year’s crops but before a new harvest, is promising to be increasingly intense. According to the U.N., up to 95 percent of the population survives by farming, fishing or herding.

In April, Chuol Kong and his wife and six children ate their last meal from the previous year’s crop of sorghum. In May pro-government Dinka militias from neighboring Lakes state stole his herd of 19 cattle were stolen at gunpoint, Kong said.

“We don’t have any food at all,” said Kong. “Maybe [one day] we’ll eat something, but the next day, nothing.”

Some are left no choice but to rely on humanitarian food drops.

Last year the International Committee of the Red Cross air-dropped food across South Sudan, the first time it had done so anywhere in 15 years. The program was expanded this year in the country.

Local humanitarian workers visit an island to check nutrition levels of children and provide a therapeutic feeding paste, called plumpy nut, and other food as well as antibiotics to those in need.
Benedict Moran
An elderly woman who walked four days from the village of Nyaldiu, in Unity, to get to a U.N. camp near Bentiu.
Benedict Moran

The U.N. is using helicopters to fly to remote communities with what it calls survival kits — small packages that include fishing supplies, vegetable seeds, a tarp, mosquito net and water purification tablets.

“There is no cultivation this year. We are 100 percent reliant on the U.N.,” said Jacob Dool, a resident of Nyal who works as a liaison between the opposition and the humanitarian community.

But many local and international humanitarian agencies are limited by fighting, fuel shortages and a deteriorating road network, all of which have made it difficult or impossible to reach many locations.

In Wau Shilluk, near Malakal in Upper Nile state, where the government is engaged in fierce battles with opposition fighters, communities have been cut off from aid for nearly two months.

Doctors Without Borders recently warned that dozens of children with acute malnutrition were at risk of starvation unless their clinic was resupplied with food.

There is also a critical shortage of funding. Since January 2015, international donors allocated more than $600 million to the United Nations and other organizations for humanitarian programs in South Sudan, but that leaves a $1 billion deficit, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian appeal.

“The barriers to reaching people in need shift from week to week and from place to place,” said Challiss McDonough, a representative of the World Food Program. “Many of those barriers can be overcome, but that takes money, and we still face significant funding shortfalls.”

This month South Sudanese and international aid workers are traveling to remote areas with the gruesome task of finding out how many people, if any, are starving to death.

If 2 per 10,000 people are found to be dying of hunger every day and other criteria from the integrated food security phase classification are met, then a famine might officially be declared.

Aid workers say such a proclamation could put South Sudan in the spotlight, put pressure on government and rebel forces to open up humanitarian access and mobilize international funds for more food assistance.

Recent surveys from the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network indicated that the death rates in areas near Nyal was 2.6 per 10,000, well above the famine threshold. These surveys found that a significant number of households were experiencing a catastrophic lack of food.

But there has been no official declaration of famine.

“Declaring famine should not be taken lightly,” said Erminio Sacco, the chief technical adviser for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in South Sudan. “It means that even with any humanitarian assistance, widespread death and starvation is occurring. It is a system failure indicating an unmanageable humanitarian disaster.” 

The Rubkona camp for displaced people, near Bentiu in northern Unity, is home to more than 104,000 people and growing.
Benedict Moran
Every day, U.N. agencies register hundreds of arrivals the Bentiu camp, nearly all of them from the Nuer ethnic group.
Benedict Moran

Tens of thousands of people have fled to United Nations bases because staying in rural villages would mean starving to death.

Every day, some 200 people stream into the the U.N. base in Rubkona, just north of Bentiu in northern Unity. They line up at the welcome center to sign up for food distribution, vaccinations for their children and an allocation of plots to erect small shelters.

A new arrival in the camp, Anyagai Sa, said she walked five days from her village in Guit county and arrived in Bentiu in early July. Her husband fled amid the chaos of an attack, and she hasn’t seen him since. “Our cows were looted, everything was taken, and the house was burned,” she said. “I came here for safety but also for food.”

After much of the camp flooded in 2014, it was recently expanded and improved to accommodate approximately 50,000 people. But a recent influx doubled the camp’s population, to more than 104,000 people, stretching the U.N.’s ability to sustain them.

When his home in Leer was attacked, John Duol escaped with his family to the camp. But he soon left, hoping to find better conditions elsewhere. He walked and canoed 29 days across swampland to Waat, in neighboring Jonglei state.

“The next step, this close to death, would be burial,” said Duol, who said he would soon return to Bentiu to collect the rest of this family. “We have to stay hopeful. Maybe this is God putting us through an experiment to see how strong-willed we are or should be.”

Benedict Moran was reporting from South Sudan on a grant from the International Reporting Project, an independent journalism program based in Washington, D.C.