A bitter harvest
The rainy season of 2009 will be remembered as one of the driest in Southern Sudan in recent memory. The devastating effects of insufficient rainfall on local farmers can be seen in the county of Ikotos in Eastern Equatoria State. Acute food shortages have forced many rural villagers to seek help in the state capital.
One of those is Shima Alfred, a mother of four who made the 60-kilometer trip from her Ikotos home to Torit with her four-yearold daughter after the family's crops failed earlier this year.
"Our crops have dried out due to a lack of rain," explained Ms. Alfred, who was admitted to Torit Hospital on 1 September for treatment. "There is no money and nothing in the market like maize grains or sorghum."
Ninety per cent of all agricultural output in Southern Sudan is dependent on rainfall - as opposed to irrigation - and Eastern Equatoria is one of six southern states hardest hit by this year's disappointing levels of precipitation.
The other five states are Jonglei, Warrap, Unity, Northern Bahr El-Ghazal and Upper Nile, according to a rapid crop assessment conducted throughout the south in mid-August by the Government of Southern Sudan's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in conjunction with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme (WFP).
The survey predicted a decline in Southern Sudan's sorghum production of between 30 and 40 per cent in 2009. The outlook was even worse for maize, which was projected to fall by between 50 and 60 per cent this year.
While other factors are also at play, including escalating tribal violence in the region and a lack of tools and seeds for cultivation, the assessment identified this year's scant rains as the main cause of plummeting food production in Southern Sudan.
By all accounts, the emerging picture of food insecurity does not approach the catastrophic levels of famine seen in parts of Southern Sudan during the late 1980s. But there are pockets of severe food scarcity across the region, and Ikotos County is a case in point.
Government and Catholic church officials started to receive reports of hunger and looming food shortages from different counties in Eastern Equatoria as early as February of this year.
But only in more recent weeks have those early alarm bells been borne out by actual cases of malnutrition and hunger-related deaths.
Torit Hospital senior nutrition officer Lucy Koyak said that over a hundred people suffering from malnutrition had been treated at the hospital thus far. She knew of at least a dozen deaths related to food shortages.
"The hunger in the state has forced some families and their children to eat once a day for 2 Sudanese pounds or less," said Ms. Koyak. "(Some) go without, since there is no money and little or nothing to eat."
Rex Charles, the director of the state office of the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said that children have been especially affected by the food insecurity phenomenon.
He said that in one village in Magwi County, three children died after eating poisonous wild yams while their parents were out searching for food. The plight of certain rural communities has led some residents to cross into Uganda in quest of food, said the Catholic priest Dario Arite in a letter he wrote to the bishop of Torit diocese, Akio Johnson Mutek.
Others have sought out scapegoats. A group of Evangelical missionaries was chased out of a Didinga village near the town of Chukudum earlier this year when they were blamed for the absence of rainfall. Southern Sudan is expected to receive above average levels of precipitation in the final weeks of the rainy season. But experts caution that this could produce serious flooding in the states of Northern Bahr El-Ghazal, Warrap and Jonglei that might wipe out existing crops.
The WFP, Catholic Relief Services and other international non-governmental organizations have been working closely with Eastern Equatoria State authorities to deliver food to remote communities currently unable to feed themselves. In August, the state ministry of health delivered three cartons of nutritional paste to 75 malnourished children in the county of Kapoeta South with support from UNICEF.
But Alfred Kayumbe Tugul of the Eastern Equatoria State Ministry of Finance warns that a shortage of trucks and poor road conditions have hampered access to some rural areas.
Food reserves are being depleted fast and market prices are rising, said Mr. Tugul, and conditions may not improve before the start of next year. "As the state government, our appeal goes to the humanitarian community to help fight this food insecurity," he said.