by Kristin Myers
South Sudan is right now in the grip of a food crisis that threatens millions of lives. It’s a humanitarian emergency on an enormous scale — but how did it come to this? It’s hard to ignore the numbers: more than 50,000 killed, more than three million forced to flee their homes, and millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. It’s stunning to observe South Sudan’s decline from an American foreign-policy success story to a country on the verge of collapse, so soon after its 2011 independence — and largely out of the spotlight.
AN UNPRECEDENTED CRISIS
The country is right now in the grip of a food crisis that threatens millions of lives. The UN has warned that as many as five million people will struggle to have enough to eat by July of this year. In Northern Bahr el Ghazal, one of the country’s most vulnerable areas, 59% of the population is already facing crisis- or emergency-level food shortages.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization characterized South Sudan’s food struggles as “unprecedented,” as 40% of the country’s population is in urgent need of assistance.
The inconsistent and unreliable access to food has caused malnutrition rates to skyrocket. UNICEF predicts that this year more than a quarter of a million children will be affected by severe acute malnutrition — the most extreme and life-threatening form of hunger.
The country already had few health facilities, but renewed violence and displacement has forced many of them to close. For those that remain open, there is simply not enough money for basic medicines and staff. Families struggle to reach the nearest open clinic, especially during the rainy season when the ground turns to swamp and many areas are cut off entirely.
Without help, thousands of South Sudanese people could die in the months ahead.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
After decades of conflict, South Sudan officially seceded from Sudan and gained its independence in 2011, making it the world’s youngest nation. The United States played a large role in its creation, and Susan Rice, the former US Ambassador to the UN, was present to deliver remarks on South Sudan’s independence day. Hopes were high for peace.
Sadly, however, the country has been choked by violence since December 2013, when a civil war broke out that inflamed long-standing ethnic tensions. The conflict still rages on, despite multiple attempts to quell the violence that has displaced millions inside South Sudan, and forced more than a million to flee the country.
A TANKING ECONOMY
The relentless conflict has left South Sudan’s economy in tatters. The country has extensive oil fields and is heavily dependent on them to support its economy, but South Sudan is landbound so runs almost all its pipelines through Sudan to get oil to port. When South Sudan accused Sudan of siphoning off oil from its pipes, the dispute led South Sudan to temporarily suspend production in 2012. The country’s financial reserves took a huge hit and have never recovered. Even though South Sudan resumed production soon afterward and currently produces a small amount of oil, falling global oil prices mean low returns, and the ongoing conflict continuously disrupts production. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s debt continues to rise.
As much as 85% of the South Sudanese workforce do not get paid for their labor, with most people relying on unpaid farming jobs just to get by. The conflict has had a devastating effect on already vulnerable farmers, who depend on the crops they grow to eat and sell at market for money. Agriculture has been disrupted not only by people fleeing — leaving their fields unplanted and uncared for — but also by flooding that has destroyed crops.
It should come as no surprise then, that South Sudan’s dollar has significantly depreciated, and inflation rates have soared. The last recorded inflation rate in December 2016 was a staggering 479.7% — the highest in the world. At the same time, extreme poverty has increased to nearly 66%.
RISING FOOD PRICES
As most food is imported, ballooning inflation has caused prices for those staples to soar. The poor harvest in-country has also drastically reduced the availability of home-grown food, pushing prices up even further. Even those few with money to purchase goods face difficulty, as access to markets has been severely limited as fighting along roads prevents goods from reaching markets.
Take the staple food of maize flour for example. Because of intensified and spreading violence in the past year, especially in South Sudan’s main food producing region, the price for two pounds of maize flour leapt from 14 South Sudanese pounds to 120 over the course of one year in the region of Aweil, where Concern operates. That’s a price increase of 857%.
For people who do not earn money for their labor — which is the vast majority of the population — these prices put food completely out of reach. Ordinarily, they might rely on growing their own food, but conflict and floods have made it difficult for most people to grow enough to survive.
“Humanitarian organizations are struggling to cope, as the escalating needs far outweigh the resources and funding available,” said Julia Lewis, Concern’s Country Director.
Millions are already facing hunger, and hundreds of thousands more will be at risk over the coming months. It’s clear that the people of South Sudan cannot carry on like this for much longer. Without assistance, the situation will only deteriorate, fueling what is fast becoming one of the world’s largest refugee crises.