Changes in context
In the first quarter of 2020, South Sudan continued to reel from the cumulative effects of years of prolonged conflict, chronic vulnerabilities and weak essential services compounded by emerging health risks. The country was still recovering from widespread flooding which devastated large areas in the second half of 2019. Agricultural and livelihoods activities were severely affected and people in the hardest-hit areas were struggling to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The arrival of the desert locusts in several counties in Eastern, Central and Western Equatoria, and Lakes added an extra threat to the already dire food security and livelihoods situation.
The ceasefire held in most parts of the country and overall violence continued to reduce with the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity in February. This was a significant achievement in the implementation of the revitalized peace agreement and offered hope for the recovery of the country and its people. However, armed conflict and inter-communal violence spiked in pockets throughout the dry season, including in areas that had not seen violence recently. In the first three months of the year, tens of thousands of people were newly displaced by fighting between armed groups, inter-communal violence and cattle raiding, particularly in Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Lakes, Upper Nile and Warrap.
A new threat to South Sudan came into focus as the global COVID-19 pandemic spread into East and Central Africa. The possibility of a large-scale outbreak in a country with one of the weakest health care systems in the world led to borders being closed and restrictions placed on people’s movement. No cases were confirmed in South Sudan by the end of the quarter.
Half of the population were at risk of hunger
Hunger threatened over half of the nearly 12 million people living in South Sudan. Between February and April, 6 million people were projected to be acutely food insecure, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report released in February. This was an increase of 700,000 people from the 5.3 million who were acutely food insecure in January. Over 40 per cent of counties would be in the emergency phase of acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 4) or worse. Worryingly, some 20,000 people were estimated to be in catastrophic food insecurity in the flood-affected areas of Akobo and Duk counties in Jonglei.
From the start of the year, there was an upward trend in food prices. The COVID-19 threat and related preventive measures had a significant impact on supply chains in the region, causing prices to rise and a goods shortage. The economic shock of a pandemic would likely deepen food insecurity, particularly at a time when the country was approaching the lean season.
The desert locusts invasion, ravaging neighbouring Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda during the first quarter, could further threaten food security in South Sudan. In February, a mature swarm of desert locusts from Uganda arrived in Ikotos, Magwi and Torit counties in Eastern Equatoria. By March, the locusts were in several counties in Eastern, Central and Western Equatoria, and Lakes. The full impact of the locusts on food insecurity was not known by the end of the quarter.
Malnutrition was still a pressing issue in South Sudan, with approximately 1.3 million children under five years and some 352,000 pregnant or lactating women expected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020.
Inter-communal violence drove displacement
Inter-communal violence intensified and forced civilians to flee during the first quarter, with violence hot spots in parts of Eastern Equatoria, Jonglei, Lakes, Unity, Upper Nile, Warrap and Western Bahr el Ghazal states. Over 200 incidents of inter communal violence was recorded according to humanitarian partners on the ground and media reports. The increased number and range of weapons used by rival clans, along with the limited response by local and national authorities, including the security forces, contributed to the spike in violence.
In January, more than 19,000 people were displaced by fighting in Maiwut County, Upper Nile, and in Yei and Lainya counties, Central Equatoria, of which 8,000 sought refuge in Ethiopia. Clashes between armed youth groups in Mvolo County, Western Equatoria, displaced an estimated 5,000 people. In addition to inter-communal violence, clashes between the armed group National Salvation Front and SSPDF in Lasu in late 2019 and early 2020 led to reports of human rights violations and abuses in Yei. Soldiers allegedly committed civilian executions, rape and carried out systematic looting. In Yirol West and Rumbek East counties in Lakes, communal clashes displaced about 2,200 people. In Western Equatoria’s Maridi County, clashes between Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition and National Salvation Front forces displaced almost 3,000 people within the county and across the border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In February, inter-communal fighting, cattle raiding and revenge attacks between armed youth groups in the greater Pibor area displaced some 9,000 people. Over 200 women and children were reportedly abducted and subjected to sexual violence, and many homes were burned to the ground. Most of the 9,000, mainly children, women and elderly, took shelter at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Protection of Civilians Area Adjacent site in Pibor town, with the remaining taking refuge in bush areas west of Pibor, and in Bor County. In Rumbek North, Lakes, inter-communal clashes forced some 2,700 people to flee to Dheng-Nhial site. In March, several inter-communal clashes displaced about 5,100 people from Jur River County into Wau County.
Additionally a phenomena not previously seen at this level of intensity has been the rise in intra-communal violence over the past two years. Found especially around Rumbek North and East in Lakes, Tonj East and South in Warrap, and Ayod in Jonglei, growing intra-communal violence would suggest deepening of vulnerability and the breakdown of social cohesion.
Almost 4 million people remained displaced in the first quarter, driven mainly by years of conflict, inter-communal violence, food insecurity and recent natural hazards such as floods. This included 1.7 million people who were internally displaced, according to a new IDP baseline released by IOM and OCHA in January 2020. The marginal increase from the IDP count published ahead of the Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) was mainly due to an increase in assessment coverage. In the first quarter of 2020, tens of thousands of people were newly displaced, mainly as a result of armed conflict and inter-communal violence. At the same time, IDPs continued to return home in modest numbers. The results of the latest displacement tracking exercise, detailing the number of IDPs and returnees, will be released in late May.
Another 2.2 million South Sudanese remained displaced as refugees in six neighbouring countries. Despite UNHCR’s position of no facilitated, promoted or otherwise organized returns to South Sudan as conditions are not conducive for returns, approximately 44,000 South Sudanese refugees spontaneously returned in the first quarter of 2020, with the most active return corridors being Panakuach, Mayendit, Mayom and Panyijiar in Unity, and Renk and Kodok in Upper Nile. At the same time, more than 16,000 South Sudanese fled the country and sought refuge mainly in Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia. South Sudan continued to host about 300,000 refugees from neighbouring countries, mainly in Maban County, Upper Nile and Pariang County, Unity State.
Despite marginal improvements in security, displaced people still experienced major obstacles in achieving durable solutions, such as returning to their former residences, relocating to new areas or integration in the locations where they now stay. Many were fearful to return home as they did not know how safe and secure it was for them to return. In a UNHCR intentions survey conducted during the first quarter in the Bor, Malakal, Wau and Juba Protection of Civilians sites and thee urban collective sites in Juba, 48 per cent of IDPs said that they could return to their habitual residence only when it is safe for them to do so.
Humanitarian access continued to improve In the first quarter of 2020, humanitarian access continued to improve across South Sudan with a decrease in clashes between armed groups, attributed to the formation of the transitional government. At the same time, an upsurge in inter-communal violence, particularly in Jonglei and Lakes, severely impacted humanitarian operations. More than 110 aid workers were relocated as a result of escalating tensions. Looting of humanitarian supplies by community members and armed youth groups during intercommunal violence set back efforts to respond to the needs
of vulnerable people across the country. With increased road movements, humanitarians were exposed to more ambushes and criminality, with the majority of incidents recorded in the Kapoeta and Rumbek corridors.
In Pibor, one aid worker was killed in February at a roadblock manned by unknown armed youth, bringing the number of aid workers killed in South Sudan since the conflict began in 2013 to 116.
Increased bureaucratic impediments challenged humanitarian operations and the effective delivery of life-saving assistance to people in need. Extortion, duplicate registration at state and local levels, imposition of taxes and fees, interference in recruitment processes and the inconsistent application of policies delayed or disrupted humanitarian operations. Humanitarian organizations continued to face pressure from authorities, particularly in several locations in Jonglei, for remittance of tax to the former 32 states.
Poor road conditions were aggravated by the 2019 floods. In addition, the presence of landmines and other explosive hazards still posed a threat to physical access.
South Sudan was at high risk of the COVID-19 pandemic
A new threat to the people of South Sudan came into focus as the global COVID-19 pandemic spread into the region. At the end of the first quarter, no COVID-19 cases were confirmed in South Sudan, but the risk grew as neighbouring countries confirmed cases. South Sudan was highly vulnerable to epidemic diseases, due to low immunization coverage, a weak healthcare system, and poor hygiene and sanitation. Over 430,000 people or 30 per cent of all IDPs were sheltering in crowded camps or camp-like settings. The congested nature of these settings presented a high risk of the spread of COVID-19.
The already dire food security situation in South Sudan could also worsen with the adverse economic impacts of COVID-19, including a slowdown in the importation of basic commodities. Markets could quickly come under significant stress, as evidenced by the sharp price increases already seen.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.