An already dire food situation in South Sudan could deteriorate amid growing economic problems, food shortages and a mass influx of people fleeing Sudan in the next two months, agencies warn.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said that in South Sudan’s first year of statehood, half the population of about nine million people could face hunger.
Their Crop and Food Security Assessment report shows that for 2012, 4.7 million people will be food-insecure, up 1.4 million from last year, and the number of severely food-insecure will hit almost one million from 900,000 in 2011.
South Sudan will only produce about half the food it needs, with a cereal deficit of 470,000MT due to erratic rains and internal conflict displacing many away from fields.
Last month, a huge wave of ethnic violence in South Sudan’s largest state, Jonglei, affected more than 140,000 people and until peace talks are organized, the situation remains precarious.
In addition to a poor harvest, huge waves of returnees from Sudan or refugees fleeing violence across the border have compounded food shortages.
“If conflict continues to cause major population displacements and food prices keep rising, the report estimates that the number of people who are severely food-insecure could double,” a joint FAO-WFP statement warned.
"This is a rapidly approaching crisis that the world cannot afford to ignore," said Chris Nikoi, WFP's country director in South Sudan.
South Sudan’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Joseph Lual Achuil, urged people to try to salvage what they could from the planting season before the rains come or 1.7 million people would be “severely affected by starvation”.
“If we don’t do our best in order to rescue the situation now, 4.7 million will be without food, and if they are without food before the rain, after the rain what is going to happen? We are going to have a disaster,” he said.
Time and money running out
Food prices have skyrocketed since major trading partner Sudan closed its border months before South Sudan gained independence, with food from neighbouring countries hit by rising fuel prices, transportation costs and illegal taxation.
George Mabany, an aid worker in Bentiu, state capital of the oil-rich Unity state near Sudan's border, said prices had tripled since May, when Sudanese troops occupied the contested region of Abyei and the borders closed.
Mabany said 1kg of grain had doubled in price to 100 pounds (US$28) as all food was now being trucked up from Uganda. The price of 50kg of sugar had tripled to 85 pounds ($24), he said.
Items such as eggs and onions were no longer available and while the market had a small amount of fruits and vegetables, nobody could afford them.
Depreciation of the South Sudanese pound has also caused a hike in prices. Dependent on oil for 98 percent of its revenues, South Sudan’s decision in late January to halt oil production in a bitter row with Sudan over transit fees could spark rampant inflation.
WFP only has about a third of the $250m needed to reach a planned 2.7m people this year, and only has a few months until the rains start to bring in enough food before large parts of the country are inaccessible by truck.
“Come May, the logistics capacity of moving large stocks around doesn’t exist any more because of the rains and the poor logistics of the country,” said Ramiro Lopes da Silva, deputy director of WFP. “At the moment, we don’t have enough money even for what we have planned already.”
"The situation is dire, and we are doing everything we can to be ready, but we are running out of time," Nikoi said.
Up to 500,000 people in two of Sudan’s war-torn border states could flee southwards when the rains come and there is nothing left from last year’s poor harvest.
Conflict broke out in South Kordofan in June when government forces clashed with those formerly loyal to South Sudan, and spread to neighbouring Blue Nile in September.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has refused to allow aid agencies into conflict areas, and frequent aerial bombardment and violence have forced more than 417,000 people to flee their homes and fields, according to the UN.
Some 80,000 people have already crossed into South Sudan, many suffering from malnutrition, malaria and pneumonia after months of hiding in the bush and scavenging food.
Princeton Lyman, US envoy to the two Sudans, has warned of an imminent famine if there is no intervention.
“What you have now is a sense of urgency. In a couple of months we are in what is typically the hunger season, both in Sudan and South Sudan, and obviously the impact on those populations is potentially very serious,” Da Silva said.
Rights group Amnesty International said that even six months ago, people scattered in the bush were surviving on dwindling food supplies and wild fruits.
“Civilians continue to live in precarious conditions with insufficient food, shelter or access to healthcare and in fear of being bombed. It is essential for the civilian population from these two areas to receive impartial humanitarian assistance,” AI’s UN ambassador Renzo Pomi said.
“There is a sense of urgency that the window for an effective intervention with the populations where they are is narrowing,” said Da Silva on negotiations with the North.
WFP has also been stopped from accessing stocks in Sudan to bring south of the border, so it is trucking food all the way from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.
Fears of mass deportations
Aid agencies are also extremely concerned about the fate of up to 700,000 southerners still thought to be living in the north, who face a deadline to get legal or get out by 8 April.
As relations sour between the two nations, there are fears that hundreds of thousands of people could descend on the impoverished south within months.
But provisions for how southerners can legalize themselves have yet to be made, while Khartoum has closed the port of Kosti where barges packed with thousands of people leave for the South.
South Sudan says trains have also been prevented from leaving, while the other options of flying and trucking people through dangerous territory filled with mines are unworkable for the numbers and time limit.
The UN has appealed for $763m for South Sudan in 2012, but says more will likely be needed with the expectation of more crises, while aid agencies are already struggling with the current caseload.
"Of course we're not ready for any kind of major movement from the north to south, considering what we're dealing with in South Sudan already - capacity is already extremely stretched," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, said recently.
"I think that everyone needs to recognize that if we do have to face those challenges in the next two to three months, our resources will be extremely stretched," she added.