South Sudan hunger crisis 'to affect four million'

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Media captionThe malnutrition rate has shot up since fighting broke out in December

Some four million people in South Sudan are likely to face critical food shortages next month, British aid agencies have warned.

But the Disasters Emergency Committee says the cost of mounting an appeal to pay for aid might outweigh donations.

South Sudan's president has already warned of "one of worst famines ever".

More than a million people have fled their homes since fighting erupted between different factions of South Sudan's ruling party last December.

Thousands have now died in the conflict that started as a political dispute between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his sacked deputy, but escalated into ethnic violence.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Aid agencies say farmers have been unable to plant or harvest their crops due to fighting

'Slip into famine'

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) - which brings together 13 UK charities to deal with international crises - says it currently has less than half of the money it needs to "prevent the growing food crisis in South Sudan from turning into a catastrophe".

"If the conflict in South Sudan continues, and more aid cannot be delivered, then by August it is likely that some localised areas of South Sudan will slip into famine," the DEC says in its report, citing international food crisis experts.

The committee says the same experts helped predict the seriousness of the East Africa food crisis in 2011, which led to the first famine of the 21st Century in Somalia.

It predicts that responsive emergency work would cost £113m ($194m), but to date they have only received £56m.

"We are very concerned... that despite some excellent news coverage of the situation, public awareness of the crisis in the UK remains very low, making a successful appeal extremely difficult," said DEC head Saleh Saeed.

Analysis - Mark Doyle, BBC international development correspondent

Journalists call dramatic news stories "sexy". And predicting a famine - however certain the aid agencies are about it - will always be less sexy than the real thing.

The financing of humanitarian work depends to a large extent on media coverage - from the coins put in charity boxes to the much larger sums given by governments.

In this case the agency experts have even put dates on the coming hunger in South Sudan - August to November.

It will be interesting to see how much impact the prediction makes.

It didn't work in late 2010 when the United Nations and others sounded the alarm about an impending famine in Somalia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa.

The warning bells were more or less ignored and in 2011 the worst hunger crisis this century has seen so far duly took place.

That was sexy. We covered that.

In pictures: Threat of famine

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Media captionThe Tearfund charity says one mother of five walked 60 miles to find food

Months of fighting in South Sudan has prevented farmers from planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide.

Last month, South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, topped the list of fragile states in this year's index released by The Fund for Peace, a leading US-based research institute.

According to the internationally accepted IPC classification, at least the first three of these conditions must occur:

  • at least 20% of the total population in a given area are on the brink of starvation due to lack of food
  • acute malnutrition rates are greater than 30% of the population
  • Two deaths per 10,000 people per day
  • A pandemic illness
  • Access to less than four litres of water a day
  • Large-scale displacement
  • Civil strife
  • Complete loss of assets and source of income

Image caption Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in December 2013. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
Image caption Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Image caption Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north.
Image caption The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Image caption After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Image caption Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however, this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Image caption Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight. This compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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