UN declares famine in South Sudan

The international community, overstretched and distracted as it may be, must respond urgently to its agony

 

The ethnic conflict in South Sudan that has caused tens of thousands of deaths and driven millions from their homes in the last three years has tipped the country into famine.

Malnutrition has claimed many lives and a quarter of a million children are already severely malnourished, the United Nations warned in declaring a famine emergency. On Monday it appealed again for international help that its previous warnings have failed to generate.

The failure of the October-December rains has left a trail of hunger across the region and thousands of people in the north of the country have fled their homes, many living deep in the swamps or sweltering bush and surviving on wild plants and filthy water.

The Famine Early Warning System Network estimates that 4.6 million people will require emergency food assistance this year.

Six years after hard-won independence, becoming the world’s youngest country, South Sudan is ravaged by tribal conflict between Dinka and Nuer and, the UN says, is on the brink of genocide.

The presence of some 10,000 UN peacekeepers is little more than symbolic in a territory nearly the size of France and Germany combined and served by barely 200km of paved roads. As desperation spreads, raids on aid warehouses and attacks on aid suppliers have risen. UN officials say there were 71 looting incidents last year, up from 57 in 2015, a major challenge to any badly needed ramping up of international assistance.

South Sudan’s economy has been ruined, key oil facilities destroyed and inflation is running now at 830 per cent – what food there is in the markets has become unaffordable. With the government unable to pay its soldiers regularly, discipline is breaking down and increasingly they too are involved in armed raids on stores. It is a measure of the scale of the breakdown of society that military wives and their emaciated children queue with the hungry for what little the aid agencies can hand out.

The international community, overstretched and distracted as it may be, must respond urgently to South Sudan’s agony.

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