A severe food shortage has deteriorated into a famine in two counties in South Sudan, the government and United Nations announced yesterday, with 100,000 people facing starvation.
Joyce Luma, head of the World Food Programme in South Sudan, called the famine "man-made," blaming it on political turmoil in a country engulfed in civil war since late 2013.
Luma and representatives of two other UN agencies - UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - issued the famine declaration at a news conference in Juba, South Sudan's capital, along with Isaiah Chol Aruai, the head of the country's National Bureau of Statistics. A formal declaration of famine indicates that people are dying of hunger.
"Our worst fears have been realised. Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive," said Serge Tissot, representative of the FAO in South Sudan.
The agencies painted a grim picture of the situation in the impoverished country, saying that 100,000 people are at risk of starvation and that 1 million more are on the brink of famine.
About 5.5 million people, or about half of South Sudan's population, will face severe food shortages by the summer unless more relief is provided, they said.
South Sudan, which became independent from Sudan in 2011 with strong support from the US government and the international community, descended into conflict in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir fired his vice president, Riek Machar. The ensuing war took on ethnic overtones, with Kiir's Dinka group battling members of Machar's Nuer group.
Tens of thousands of people have died and more than 1.5 million have fled the country.
The UN officials said that war had disrupted agriculture, the main occupation in many parts of the country, crippling the economy and leaving people unable to feed themselves. People were relying on "whatever plants they can find and fish they can catch," Tissot said. The two counties affected by famine are in Unity, an important oil-producing state in the north.
The UN agencies said that more humanitarian aid is needed to prevent the famine from spreading to other areas.
"If sustained and adequate assistance is delivered urgently, the hunger situation can be improved in the coming months and further suffering mitigated," the agencies said in a report.
UN officials have complained that both government and opposition forces have blocked humanitarian convoys and attacked aid workers, making it difficult to bring assistance to the worst-affected areas.
Jeremy Hopkins, head of UNICEF in South Sudan, said that more than 250,000 children are severely malnourished and that if they do not receive food immediately, "many of them will die."
The officials said the hunger crisis is the worst since fighting started three years ago.
South Sudan has experienced starvation before. In 1998, a famine occurred in the region of Bahr El Ghazal after a prolonged drought and fighting between forces supporting Sudan's government and rebels seeking independence for the south.
The United Nations has been alarmed by the recent deterioration in South Sudan. In December, UN officials warned that "ethnic cleansing" was taking place and that an "all-out ethnic civil war" could occur.
Last week, Arif Husain, the World Food Program's chief economist, told Reuters that 20 million people could die of starvation over the next six months in famines in northeastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.