Regional Forces Fail to Adequately Address Famine in South Sudan

by Celia Garrett

In this photo of Friday, July 25, 2014, Ertharin Cousin Executive Director of the United Nations World Food programme meets patients at IMC Nutrition program clinic in Malakal, South Sudan. Health experts are meeting in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, Monday July 28, 2014, debating exactly how severe the famine situation is in South Sudan, and their decision may prompt millions of dollars in aid or condemn tens of thousands of displaced people to continued hunger in what is described by Chris Hillbruner, the lead food security analyst for FEWSNET, a famine early warning system "is still the worst food security emergency in the world ... there is still huge need." (AP Photo/ Matthew Abbott)

“It is utterly abhorrent that women in this area have to choose between getting raped or getting a livelihood…but this seems the brutal reality of what South Sudan has become.” Andrew Gilmour, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for human rights traveled to South Sudan last week to visit some of the areas of South Sudan devastated by government and rebel fighting.

The South Sudanese government and the UN recently declared a famine in parts of South Sudan. The UN distinguishes between food insecurities and famine, defining famine to exist if three conditions are met: at least 20% of households face extreme food shortages, 30% or more of the population experience acute malnutrition, and the death rate exceeds two people per 10,000 per day. This makes South Sudan the first country to face an official famine since Somalia in 2011. Many have already died from hunger and another 100, 000 face starvation. According to U.N. humanitarian agencies, nearly 5 million are in need of urgent food assistance in the war-torn nation. This amounts to half of the country’s population. According to Serge Tissot, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative in South Sudan “many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.”

The list of worst-affected regions Gilmour visited notably includes the Unity Region, a rebel stronghold and birthplace of rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar. Arguably the worst affected region, brutal fighting between government and rebel forces largely caused the famine that currently plagues the country. Conflict fuels food shortages. More than half the population in the Unity state has been affected largely due to the overwhelming violence driving families from their towns and prohibiting agricultural production in an area dominated by farmers. According Lorenzo Bellu, a senior economist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), “conflicts are one of the key causes of food insecurity.” Given that this area is home to rebel leader Machar and therefore the rebel coalition’s base, it became the center of much severe fighting causing higher levels of displacement and famine. Additionally, President Kiir’s appointment of a fellow Dinka to the Unity State governor caused further uproar and increased fighting in this rebel stronghold. The rebel force, the SPLM/A-IO denounced the appointment, as the 2015 peace agreement granted that the governor of Unity would be chosen from within the state’s own ranks. This fuels continuous instability and violent tensions in the region. According to the state department, this man-made crisis is a “direct consequence of a conflict prolonged by South Sudanese leaders who are unwilling to put aside political ambitions for the good of their people.”

Unity families have fled to hide from the fighting, with children now living in the swamps and marshes of the Nile. Pushed to the brink of surviving on any wild plants or fish they can find, thousands are emerging and walking to the town of Thonyor where they have heard international humanitarian agencies will provide desperately need food aid. Nyambind Chan Juar, an elderly woman, explained how 16 of her children and grandchildren had “only [been] surviving by eating wild honey and water lilies from the river.”

In a country where children pass away daily from hunger and 40% of the population depends upon international aid, the regional body IGAD bears responsibility to act productively. IGAD involved itself extensively in exerting significant pressure on Kiir and Machar to sign the 2015 peace agreement. This block of eight countries - Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda – works to achieve regional peace, prosperity and cooperation.

In this photo taken Wednesday, March 1, 2017, Lulu Yurdio, 12, collects food aid for himself and his two siblings and parents who remain hiding in the bush, in Padeah, South Sudan. South Sudanese who fled famine and fighting in Leer county emerged from South Sudan's swamps after months in hiding to receive food aid being distributed by the World Food Program. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

Regarding the famine in South Sudan, rather than providing meaningful assistance itself, IGAD has been slow to respond to the declaration of famine in South Sudan and urged the international community to increase support. In a statement of the IGAD Council of Minister’s consultation on the region, released March 17, IGAD called for an expedited deployment of the UN Security Council’s call for a regional protection force (RPF) composed of international peacekeepers. Additionally, the regional body declared their “unanimous support” for Kiir’s transitional government. This caused many South Sudanese to look towards European countries for help instead (the British government recently allocated 200 million for food aid in South Sudan). James Hakim, a young government worker, doesn’t “think this people (African leaders) will save us, they are the part of the problem we face, but when it comes to solution they cannot do it.” David Jok, a resident of Juba, echoed this sentiment in saying he has “no hope in Africa, it’s the same Africa of yesterday, we should not expect much from this continent, but we appreciate the others (European) support and intervention.” 

Long-term, the solution is simple: peace. WFP country director Joyce Luma reminds the world that “there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security, both for relief workers and the crisis-affected people they serve.” After the famine in Somalia in 2011, “the world said never again.” Emma Jane Drew, a humanitarian program manager for Oxfam in South Sudan, said that the “declaration of famine in South Sudan reflects the collective failure to heed the countless warnings of an ever-worsening situation.” A report released by the UN – after March 8 when the UN chief declared the risk of genocide had “considerably diminished” despite the continued fighting – stated the UN, AU and IGAD had a common strategy on decreasing violence in the country. One of the very few details released about what exactly such a strategy consisted of emphasize fostering an “inclusive dialogue” to promote sustainable peace in South Sudan. However, this regional focus on long-term peaceful solution demands substantial aid from international humanitarian organizations right now.

In the short-term, immediate assistance is needed to sustain devastated South Sudanese communities such as the Unity state population. The situation demands urgency and a more direct solution than strengthening and emphasizing the failed 2015 peace agreement, as IGAD has done. The World Food Program (WFP) is coordinating an emergency response, planning to provide food and nutrition assistance to 4.1m people in the coming months. Negotiations with both government and rebel leaders in this region allowed international agencies to airdrop desperately needed food supplies to this community. However, thousands cannot reach this aid, impeded by rivers and more fighting in areas where the two sides have not agreed to provide access. Once fed, these families will return again to their hiding places without a sustainable food source. With half of the country’s population facing starvation, the international community must rise from its position on the sidelines to employ some mechanism to protect civilians and impact the millions of starving families if regional bodies fail to adequately address the pressing concerns of a desperate population.