The EU on Tuesday (21 February) condemned as “man-made” the newly-declared famine in South Sudan, whilst pledging an initial €82m in emergency aid to the country.
The famine situation in the world’s youngest country – it declared independence from Sudan in 2011 – was officially confirmed on Monday (20 February) by the government in Juba, with aid agencies now appealing for help in managing the crisis.
According to the EU, 100,000 people now face starvation, although other aid agencies, such as Save the Children, put the figure even higher.
Announcing the EU emergency aid package, Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Christos Stylianides, demanded access for NGOs to the conflict zone and announced he was prepared to return to the region to facilitate progress.
He said: “The humanitarian tragedy in South Sudan is entirely man made. Urgent action is needed to prevent more people from dying of hunger.
“I have seen for myself the impact of this crisis when visiting South Sudan and neighbouring countries such as Uganda, and I’m ready to return to the region.
“Crucially what matters is that all parties allow humanitarian organisations to have immediate and full access to do their job and deliver aid. Ultimately it is only by laying down arms that the country can be rebuilt and that the hopes that came with independence can be fulfilled.”
According to Save the Children, citing the Famine Early Warning Systems figures, some 4.9 million people in the country will be in “food crisis” situation, on the brink of famine, between now and April.
That includes one million children, and the overall figure is expected to jump to 5.5 million people by July.
The crisis is a combination of a bad harvest made much worse by fighting on the ground. Since conflict broke out around Juba last year, much of central and eastern parts of the country, traditionally the ‘food basket’ of South Sudan, have seen fighting.
According to aid workers on the ground, the conflict has not only destroyed crops, but forced farmers to flee their homes, abandoning fields and harvests, whilst making trade routes impassable, and disrupting aid supplies.
Already, since 2013, more than three million people have fled to neighbouring countries, including 9,000 unaccompanied children.
To make the situation even worse, the hunger crisis is spreading across the Horn of Africa, with some 14m people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya also facing severe food and water shortages – stretching NGOs abilities to cope.
In 2011-2012, nearly 260,000 people died in Somalia when a famine hit the southern regions.
‘Scavenging from swamps’
Oxfam’s Program Manager in South Sudan, Emma Jane Drew, said: “In over 30 years working in the affected areas, Oxfam has never witnessed such dire need.
“People have been pushed to the brink of surviving on what they can find to eat in swamps – as so often in a crisis, women and children being the worst affected.”
Drew also agreed that this was a “man-made tragedy”.
Perry Mansfield, World Vision’s national director in South Sudan, warned: “The rainy season is only weeks away, and once that arrives the roads become impassable meaning that millions of people will be cut off from aid.”
Children, particularly under-fives, are the most at risk of dying as they are less able to withstand acute malnutrition and are more susceptible to diseases such as measles, malaria and cholera, according to Save the Children.
“While the threat of a famine in South Sudan has been looming for months, the worst-case scenario has now become a devastating reality in parts of the country. In the coming months, famine could spread to other parts of the country, where millions of vulnerable children and families now risk starving to death,” said Pete Walsh, Save the Children’s Country Director in South Sudan.
The EU money will be spent on food assistance, health, nutrition, water and sanitation, and helping refugees in neighbouring countries.
Since the outbreak of fighting in 2013, the Commission has made available €381m to South Sudan. More than 40% of all aid in South Sudan comes from the EU, the world’s largest aid donor.
According to a spokesman, a team of Commission humanitarian experts is permanently based in South Sudan, liaising with aid organisations, donors and overseeing spending.
South Sudan has been mired in both civil war and economic crisis almost since its painful birth, six years ago.
The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and more than three million displaced. The country relies for 98% of its revenues on oil exports, which have fallen by more than half.
Before South Sudan became independent, it was the southern part of Sudan, which was the scene of two civil wars, opposing mainly Christian and animist insurgents in the south and Khartoum's Arab-dominated government. Millions died in the conflicts.
Sudan's independence from Britain and Egypt in January 1956 caused a first war in the south against northern domination. The accords of 1972 brought an end to 17 years of conflict, and the south was given a measure of autonomy.
But in 1983, Khartoum reneged on the accords, unleashing another war between north and south. That rekindled an independence movement led by John Garang and his guerrilla rebel force, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
In January 2005, Garang signed a peace accord with Khartoum which exempted the south from sharia law and granted it six years of self-rule ahead of a referendum on independence.
Garang was killed in a helicopter crash in July 2005 and was succeeded as southern leader by Kiir.
On July 9, 2011, South Sudan proclaimed its independence, six months after voting by nearly 99% to secede from the north. Kiir was sworn in as the country's first president.
The international community, led by the United States, China, Russia and the European Union, as well as Sudan, quickly recognised the new African state.
Kiir and his former deputy Machar, were linked by a common cause during the rebellion against Khartoum before independence, but also by ethnic and political rivalries.
During the second Sudanese civil war, Machar, an ethnic Nuer, joined the southern rebel SPLA, which was up to then mainly made up of Kiir's Dinka tribe.
Machar opposed Garang and his allies, including Kiir, and created a rival group which allied itself with Khartoum, before reintegrating the SPLA in the early 2000s.
Kiir nominated him as vice president, first in 2005 in the semi-autonomous South Sudan region, then in July 2011 after the South gained independence.
In December 2013, the new country descended into civil war when fighting broke out within the national army, undermined by differences fuelled by the rivalry between Kiir and Machar.
An August 2015 peace deal was left in tatters when fighting broke out in Juba in July last year.
In 2016, the United Nations warned of potential genocide and ethnic cleansing, pointing to sexual and ethnic violence ravaging the country.