UN agencies are warning that newly independent South Sudan will face chronic food shortages next year due to internal and border insecurity, erratic rains and a huge influx of returnees from the North.
The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said a Rapid Crop Assessment carried out in August showed South Sudan was likely to produce 420,000-500,000MT of food this year - half the required amount.
Elijah Mukhala, FAO food security specialist, said it estimated 1.2 million people would be “severely food-insecure” next year, compared with 970,000 last year, with the deficit set to increase by about a quarter from 300,000MT last year.
“We made gains in 2010. Right now, all these gains are being reversed, and the two main issues are insecurity and rainfall”, causing shortages and price rises in both countries, FAO food security coordinator Mtendere Mphatso said.
Separated, not divorced
South Sudan gained independence from the north in July 2011 after decades of civil war that killed around two million and left the country in ruins. But while secession was peaceful, violence in border areas in Sudan has flared for months. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled southwards from Southern Kordofan, Abyei and Blue Nile, with returnees from Khartoum and subsequent border closures placing a further strain on the now landlocked nation still dependent on the North for most goods.
“For 2012, we are worried for food production on the northern side as they have also had erratic rains,” Mphatso said. In addition, the North has lost many South Sudanese farm labourers, which could result in dramatic price increases and food insecurity for all but the three southern states.
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande said more than three million people (36 percent of the population) in South Sudan were classed as moderately or severely food insecure in 2011, and the burden was increasing.
More than 340,000 people have arrived in South Sudan since January, and internal violence has pushed around the same number again away from their homes and fields.
In South Sudan, waves of inter-communal fighting, including cattle rustling, fights over water holes and retaliation attacks, as well as between rebel militia, have left thousands dead or displaced. More than 600 people were killed in August in eastern Jonglei state alone after cattle raids, and the UN says it has dealt with 34 separate emergency operations this year.
Running out of food
“A lot of those people who were coming back were poor. They were running,” Grande said of the massive influx around the January secession referendum. While 80 percent have been resettled, the lack of jobs in a country where the majority rely on small-scale farming and those coming from the north have to transition their skills from urban to rural, is also cause for concern.
This year, World Food Programme (WFP) has fed 1.8 million vulnerable people with 62,000MT of food, while late harvests prolonged the usual May-to-August hunger season by a month.
But with a 13,500MT food shortfall, WFP is concerned about rising food insecurity as fuel and commodity prices rocket.
When 110,000 people fled south after Sudanese military forces occupied the contested border town Abyei in May, pre-positioned food was ready to cater for 112,000. However, Grande said nobody had estimated the situation would last this long, and now food was running out and rains had cut off areas where large numbers of refugees were stuck.
About 40,000 people still in the swampy border town of Agok (45km south of Abyei) have been on half rations this month due to access problems. Recent flash floods mean this situation could continue into October, as trucks carrying 170MT of government-donated food from Kwajok, the state capital of Warrup, to the south, cannot get through.
In the other neighbouring state of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, WFP says a quarter of the population is severely food-insecure.
Santino Longar, assistant commodity auditor for World Vision International in Kwajok, said there was no more food for the community of 21,000 as an influx of 13,000 internally displaced peoples (IDPs) had exhausted pre-positioned supplies.
“The food used to come from the north, but since the crisis [of Abyei], the road is closed,” Longar said. Poor rains and a late harvest could push tensions in the host communities to violence, as seen in the nearby town Tonj, he added.
“The food at the market is very expensive and at times, in some places you don’t find it,” he added, saying life for the IDPs and returnees in Warrup state was very bad.
In addition to refugees from Abyei, demobilized South Sudanese troops marching back south on empty stomachs have created further resource problems.
Grande said UN humanitarian operations were being hampered by 116 incidents involving mainly looting or violence towards staff by rebel militia and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA), and the laying of new mines.
Two UN staff members were killed in an attack in May after SPLA troops commandeered six vehicles.
More than 8,000 new refugees have entered the country, fleeing violence in neighbouring Southern Kordofan, while 7,500 more have fled attacks from Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the southwest.
The FAO predicts that all but three southern states will face major food shortages due to insecurity and problems near the Sudan border.
There is a steady flow of goods from Uganda and Kenya, but in Juba’s crowded market, fruit and vegetable sellers say they are not earning enough.
“We are making a very small profit now. All things now, they are expensive: green beans, rice, fruits,” said Simaiya Nassara, a vendor who buys produce from her native Uganda.
South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics says the inflation rate rose 9 percent last month, and more than 57 percent compared to August 2010.
"The biggest problem we are having here is taxes, and fuel in the whole country. That's why the price of food is very expensive. All the food is coming from Uganda. Even Khartoum, now they divided the country, things will be difficult now... and prices will also go up," said vendor Margaret Akulu, who says some produce is now impossible to get because of northern blockades.
Market vendors said local authorities increased three-monthly permits for the tiny stalls from 150 (US$35) South Sudanese pounds to 1,110 ($280). This, in addition to more checkpoints and traffic police charging food trucks from the Ugandan border, would push up prices further.
The government recently pledged to crack down on corruption, seen as the new nation’s major stumbling block, starting with the removal of 13 illegal checkpoints in the capital, and work with local businesses to try to curb rising food prices in a country that is a net importer of almost all food.
Only 4 percent of available agricultural land is cultivated, despite South Sudan’s fertile soil.
The lack of basic infrastructure seriously hampers its ability to feed itself and the World Bank has identified agricultural support and road-building as priorities in the world’s newest nation. Before that, however, the violence must stop.