Famine Looms in South Sudan, And No One is Doing Enough to Stop It

The UN is warning that the worst famine in Africa since Ethiopia in the 1980s may befall South Sudan if humanitarian relief to the country is not significantly increased. To put this in context: 400,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of famine in the early 1980s.

There are now 1 million people displaced by conflict in South Sudan. In order to stave off a widespread food crisis, farmers need to plant seeds ahead of the rainy season which starts this month. But many of these farmers have been displaced by the civil war; and a significant number of those who were not displaced may still have their planting season interrupted by ongoing conflict. In the meantime, the humanitarian relief effort is significantly underfunded. The UN Says it needs $230 million in the next month to avert disaster.

“We’re in a race against time,” the [UN South Sudan humanitarian] coordinator, Toby Lanzer, told reporters in Geneva. In a stark message to world leaders, he said, “Invest now or pay later.”

About 3.7 million people, close to one-third of the total population, are already at severe risk of starvation in South Sudan, a crisis now ranked by the United Nations on par with Syria’s, Mr. Lanzer said. He appealed for only the most essential needs, food, water, seeds and farming tools, to allow the South Sudanese to plant crops before the end of May, when rains bring the planting season to an end.

The people of South Sudan are victims of their leaders’ incompetence and negligence, but also of a larger international humanitarian relief system that has come under unprecedented stress.

In the last 13 months, there have been four concurrent acute emergencies: Syria, the Central African Republic, the Philippines’ Typhoon and South Sudan. This has stretched UN agencies and relief NGOs thin. Donors are not filling the funding gaps. A $6.5 billion Syria relief appeal is only 16% funded; a $550 million CAR appeal is only 22% funded; and of course the South Sudan appeal is struggling at only 30% of a $1.2 billion appeal.

Funding for humanitarian relief operations in these places are secondary or tertiary priorities for most donor countries. Compare this to Ukraine, where the US Congress swiftly approved $1 billion in loan guarantees — a sum that would prevent famine in South Sudan and fill all the current humanitarian needs in CAR.

There’s enough of money in the coffers of most donor countries to stave off famine in South Sudan. $230 million is not a hugely significant sum in budgetary terms, particularly when spread across several donors. Right now, though, it does seem as if that money is going to come in time to save the people of South Sudan from starvation.

Image credit: UNMISS on Facebook