Famine was declared in two counties in Unity State in February 2017. While the severity of South Sudanese food insecurity has decreased and no part of the country is currently experiencing famine, a rise in the number of food insecure people means that the crisis is far from over.
Famine was declared in Leer and Mayendit counties after disruptions to food distribution networks. Food insecurity is measured on a five-point scale, with famine being the most severe. According to the scale, famine exists when at least 20 per cent of households in a given area face extreme food shortages; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two adults out of every 10,000 in the population. The number of South Sudanese people experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity, one level below famine conditions, has increased from one million in February to 1.7 million.
Since March, international humanitarian assistance has relieved the famine in Leer and Mayendit and prevented the situation from deteriorating further in Koch and Panyijiar counties. The continuation of armed conflict, poor governance and difficulties in distributing aid, however, will only exacerbate food insecurity. A political solution to the conflict remains necessary to improve South Sudanese food security in the long term.
It is estimated that the number of people at risk of starvation increased to six million – half the population – in June, up from 5.5 million in May. According to an Integrated Food Security Phase Classification report, there have never been more hungry people in South Sudan. If the distribution of aid is disrupted or supplies decline, it is likely that famine conditions will return to parts of South Sudan.
While food aid to South Sudan is currently secure, supplies to Uganda, where the majority of South Sudanese refugees reside, is falling short. The United Nations has consistently warned that international aid efforts are insufficient. Donors are believed to be experiencing donor fatigue, as multiple crises show little sign of abating. It is still possible that 20 million people in four countries, Somalia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen, will experience famine conditions in 2017. Less than 40 per cent of the US$4.9 billion ($6.44 billion) sought by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in February has been funded.
Challenging operating conditions in recipient countries could also contribute to the funding shortfall. The South Sudanese Government continues to make it difficult for aid agencies to operate in the country. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for the global media to operate in South Sudan with at least 20 members of the foreign press banned from the country in the past six months, the introduction of stronger censorship measures and tougher visa restrictions. These conditions contribute to a lack of awareness and growing scepticism of aid efficiency among donors.
Conflict and poor agricultural conditions have driven many farmers out of the country’s south-west, which has historically been its breadbasket, leaving fields untended. Cereal production is likely to be lower than usual in 2018, leaving the country with a food deficit. With limited domestic food production and a broken importation system, foreign aid remains the only credible source of food.
While critics of foreign food aid argue that it merely rewards corrupt leaders and prolongs hardship, in South Sudan it has ameliorated famine conditions. Foreign aid is indisputably far from perfect and the sector would benefit from reform, however, in South Sudan at least, it remains vital.