March 3, 2014 (JUBA) – The fresh wave of violence in South Sudan is expected to put more than 3.7 million people at risk of severe food insecurity, as the world’s newest nation stands on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, UNICEF said on Monday.
- Children remain among the most vulnerable groups to food shortages and disease outbreak in South Sudan (Photo: UNHCR)
Nearly 900,000 people – half of them children – have already been forced from their homes in South Sudan since violence erupted in the capital, Juba, on 15 December before spreading to other regions, with the conflict pitting government loyalist against rebel forces aligned with former vice-president Riek Machar.
“We are working to stave off disaster,” Ted Chaiban, UNICEF’s director of emergency programmes, said in a statement on Monday. “People are continuing to flee their homes in the face of fierce fighting and terrible violence,” he added.
The effects of the conflict on children have been particularly devastating, said UNICEF, with unknown numbers of girls and boys killed, maimed, raped, orphaned, recruited into armed groups, and made homeless over the past two months.
Continued violence in South Sudan has massively disrupted livelihoods, with livestock and households looted and markets destroyed.
Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states are among the worst conflict-affected areas, where fighting has compounded existing food shortages. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), even in a normal year, at least 10 percent of the population experiences severe seasonal food insecurity, regardless of agricultural performance.
This time last year, WFP warned that 4.1 million people would be food insecure in 2013. By February this year, that figure had risen to up to 7 million people – almost two thirds of the total population, including 3.2 million people who are currently in an “emergency” or “crisis” phase of food insecurity.
On 27 February, the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, expressed concern over “the grave humanitarian situation in South Sudan, where, despite the recent ceasefire agreement, the lives of millions of civilians are threatened by lack of food, outbreaks of disease, and continued violence.”
South Sudan’s warring parties signed a peace deal on 23 January, but the truce failed to hold, with fighting between government and opposition forces intensifying in recent weeks.
Upper Nile state capital was the scene of heavy fighting last month, with reports emerging of civilians being killed as they sheltered in churches and hospitals. There are now fears that 30,000 or more civilians may be freshly displaced.
“Already there are hundreds of thousands of women, children and men with limited access to safe drinking water, sanitation, nutrition and shelter,” said Chaiban. “Under such conditions, children are especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks and severe food insecurity,” he added.
Chaiban said aid agencies were “in a race against time” to help address urgent needs and pre-position supplies ahead of the rainy season, when much of the country becomes inaccessible.
STRANDED IN SWAMPLANDS
Meanwhile, reports have emerged that tens of thousands of recently displaced people (IDPs) are living with little food and no sanitation facilities on inaccessible islands in the vast swamplands of South Sudan’s Sudd region.
Most of the displaced are from Unity state’s Nyal town in Panyjiar county, which reportedly came under attack early last month from cattle raiders from neighbouring Lakes state, who burned houses and stole livestock.
Those displaced on the island remain out of reach of aid agencies and are currently e surviving on the roots of water lilies and other wild foods.
“If you don’t have a canoe, you can’t go there,” Simon Kuol, coordinator of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of Panyjiar county, told UN news agency IRIN.
With makeshift island communities defecating in the same water they use for washing and drinking, there are also fears of a major disease outbreak.
According to IRIN, those on the island are attempting to stockpile wild foods for when the rains come in April. Any assistance will need to reach people before then as supply routes are cut off during the wet season.