Kuay Makuach, farmer, Lankien, South Sudan / Oxfam East Africa

February 20, 2017; Guardian

The ongoing ethnic conflict in South Sudan, which has displaced over a quarter of its population, now threatens the food security of the people who remain. According to a government official, South Sudan is suffering from famine in Unity State, along the northern border with Sudan. As the Guardian reports:

About 4.9 million people—more than 40 percent of South Sudan’s population—are in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance, according to an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) update released on Monday. […] The IPC update, which was based on information built up over recent months, added that the total number of food insecure people is expected to rise to 5.5 million in July if nothing is done to curb the severity and spread of the food crisis.

The United States recently lifted sanctions on Sudan, South Sudan’s neighbor to the north, hoping to quicken the flow of international aid, but aid workers in both countries have struggled to safely reach the rural areas where their help is needed. Aid workers have claimed that government and rebel forces have prevented their movements, and though the UN maintains over 10,000 peacekeeping troops in the region, it is often unsafe for convoys to travel.

The United Nations defines famine as when at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, and two or more people per 10,000 are dying per day. So by the time famine is officially declared, it’s already an enormous problem that aid agencies have been trying to solve.

South Sudan has a great deal of oil. However, it has not been able to capitalize on its wealth due to ongoing conflicts among leaders and ethnic groups as well as the lack of modernization in its industry. NPQ has covered the civil war, which was recently restarted when President Salva Kiir dismissed several officials and accused one, former warlord Riek Machar, of plotting a coup.

South Sudan actually has a large amount of arable land, and 85 percent of its people rely on agriculture for their livelihood. Its farmers grow cereal crops like sorghum, millet, and rice, which are among the easier crops to transport and sell, since they don’t spoil in the heat like produce, and they don’t carry water weight. However, according to the African Development Bank, the lack of modernized techniques, the difficulty of market access, the lack of farmer associations that can provide loans and stabilize prices, and the uncertainty of property rights force farmers to operate at a subsistence level rather than for market production, leaving them unable to build long-term wealth.

According to the AFDB,

Two and a half decades ago, the country was a net exporter of agricultural product to regional markets; due to war-related destruction, poor infrastructure and lack of investment in the agriculture sector, South Sudan is now a net importer of food. It currently imports as much as 50 percent of its needs, including 40 percent of its cereals from neighboring countries, particularly Uganda and Kenya. Total food imports are estimated to be in the range of $200–300 million a year.

Since President Kiir cut off the oil supply lines in 2011, the country experienced a freefall in revenue and inflation rates of over 800 percent, making it impossible to pay for so much imported food.

Neighboring Uganda now has well over half a million South Sudanese refugees from violence and famine, in addition to nearly 50,000 refugees from violence in Burundi. Refugee camps, which are already filled to over capacity, may soon be facing their own food shortages.

World Food Program director Joyce Luma said, “This famine is manmade.” Astronomical rates of displacement and violence have made it impossible for farmers to grow food, and subsistence farming means that they rely on yearly production for survival. The WFP, the UN, and other agencies are importing and distributing food, but according to Luma, “There is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security.”— Erin Rubin