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Is the worst yet to come? Fighting famine in South Sudan

A new report from a monitoring group says that famine is at risk of spreading to a third county in South Sudan. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network says that starvation is likely to occur in the coming months, and that when the ‘lean’, season comes in July, the dire conditions that already exist are set to worsen for thousands in South Sudan without access to food.

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, faces a severe food crisis. In February 2017, the UN declared famine in two counties in South Sudan: Leer and Mayendit.

Three years of war have forced more than 3.4 million – one out of four – people to flee their homes and leave their livelihoods and cattle behind. A protracted civil war has created a fragile economy and sky-high staple food prices deepen the food insecurity further.

Last year, the few who were able to plant crops were only able to do so later in the growing season, affected by climatic shocks such as droughts and floods. Since civil war broke out in South Sudan at the end of 2013, food insecurity has worsened every year.

It has now reached a point where people’s coping mechanisms are exhausted, and families are left struggling to find enough to eat. Now, over 40% of the population are classified as severely food insecure. This new report suggests that the number of people facing the worst category of food insecurity, famine, is set to rise.

All We Can and the World Church Relationships Team of the Methodist Church in Britain launched an appeal to respond to critical needs in South Sudan and other countries on the verge of famine, including Somalia, Yemen and Ethiopia.

More than £420,000 has been given to the appeal.

This money is already enabling lives to be saved through the provision of food aid and nutritional treatment – aid is getting through.

Mary’s story: Surviving on water lilies

“In the community, we share small amounts of food. But sometimes there’s nothing. Then I wait and hope to get it from God.”

Sat on a reed mat, waiting patiently in the dry heat with her 19-month-old baby daughter, Mary [1] was in the queue for the nutrition clinic. Six weeks earlier, her daughter Rebecca [2] was severely malnourished, and Mary had brought her to the centre in desperate need of help.

The UN say that severely malnourished children in South Sudan, like Rebecca, are nine times more likely to die than their healthy peers, and when she was first seen by the clinic, the little girl was seriously ill.

Mary and her husband have no work, and the only source of food in her village with any nutritional value could be found in the river: “We were eating water lilies. We went to the river to collect water lilies.”

In the weeks before her admission to the clinic, Rebecca had become weaker and weaker, as Mary was unable to find the food her children so urgently needed to nourish them. Not having enough food takes its toll and often first affects the most vulnerable; children under the age of five, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Rebecca eventually became listless and weak, and Mary sought help.

“When I saw my daughter becoming malnourished, I knew that she was in danger,” Mary recounted, as she described what drove her to carry her daughter for an hour to reach a clinic being run by one of All We Can’s partners in the region.

Rebecca was given life-saving nutrition in the form of Plumpy’Sup (a nutritious peanut paste). Mary said, “I also got hygiene promotion… they told me how to care for my baby. They taught me how to give food to the children and how to breastfeed. I want to say thank you.”

Rebecca slowly recovered, but the situation remains as precarious as ever for families like hers. Food is scarce and the ‘lean season’ will soon arrive, when the numbers facing famine is expected to rise. When asked if she had hope for her country, Mary replied, “We cry for peace. If there were peace, everything would be good.”

Finding sanctuary

In another part of South Sudan, Wau, Angelina Awen sits with her granddaughter Aok, in a makeshift camp for over 5,000 internally displaced persons in an Episcopal Church compound.

She is surrounded by others – the majority of the families in the camp were displaced by violence early in 2017. Other temporary campsites, often in the grounds and perceived sanctuary of churches, are full to overflowing as a result of earlier widespread armed conflict that engulfed the area in June 2016.

Women like Angelina have no shelter, and sleep every night in the open. This leaves them vulnerable to the rains that are now falling across South Sudan. In coming months the rain will be replaced by blistering heat bearing down on the small camp.

One of All We Can’s partners has provided relief supplies to the displaced people in Wau, and has supported the South Sudan Council of Churches as it has struggled to mediate the conflict in the area. The food supplies are vital to families like Angelina’s, who have fled leaving everything behind.

The crisis continues across East Africa

With South Sudan on alert for famine that may spread to a third county, with the threat of a new wave of drought in Ethiopia, and with over 6.2 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in Somalia, the situation in East Africa remains catastrophic for families like Mary’s and Angelina’s.

The live-saving food aid and nutritional support that has been distributed to thousands because of generous donations to All We Can’s East Africa Famine Appeal is deeply valued by families that have nothing. But this desperate need continues. The Methodist Church in Britain urges people to carry on giving to this increasingly urgent appeal, as many families across the region face an even greater risk of starvation.

Respond to the All We Can East Africa Appeal at www.allwecan.org.uk/famine

[1] This is a pseudonym and the exact region Mary is from is hidden, to protect All We Can’s partner staff working there.
[2] This is a pseudonym and the exact region Rebecca is from is hidden, to protect All We Can’s partner staff working there.
Images of Mary and Rebecca ©Diana Gorter/MedairImage of Angelina ©Paul Jeffrey

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