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South Sudan’s Impending Food Crisis

By Ricky Passarelli

As the political conflict continues in South Sudan, feuding sides have yet to realize that impending famine could disarm them both. While governments throughout the Middle East and Africa loudly devolve, a much quieter implosion threatens the future stability of this already war-torn country. With more than 1 million people displaced by fighting this year alone, the disruption of traditional agricultural cycles is promising record scarcity and potentially the worst famine in Africa since the 1980’s. Limited infrastructure and seasonal flooding will only scale these impacts, hampering aid efforts and derailing an already tenuous peace process.

Before this year, the South Sudanese were slowly making gains towards better food security. This came after decades of perpetual conflict, which limited market growth and infrastructure development, making the population particularly vulnerable to violence, drought, and famine. Recent fighting has reignited this trend.

Last winter, civil war broke out as forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar took up arms against President Salva Kiir, resulting in a power struggle that has pitted the ethnic Nuir and Dinka communities against each other.  While leaders vie for control, armed forces on both sides continue to target unarmed civilian populations.

As a result, the fledgling nation has seen 923,000 people displaced within its borders, and an additional 293,000 flee across them in the past few months. Farmers, the primary occupation in the country, have been forced to abandon their land, worrying many about the implications of this forced migration.  

Central to the crisis is that agriculture in South Sudan is watered only by rainfall, on small, hand-cultivated plots. The planting season, which in the conflict states can run from mid-March to mid-June, is the critical window for South Sudanese farmers to sow seeds for the year. With so much population displacement, the majority of this planting has not occurred. The rainy season, which usually runs from May to October, has already started in many states, prompting concerns of dangerously low harvests in the fall.

Even if a peace deal is reached, farmers will return to their fields with little or no crops to pick. As a result, the UN FAO estimates 3.7 million people in South Sudan will face acute food security problems, or those that threaten high malnutrition and would destroy economic livelihoods, this harvest season. An additional 3.3 million are projected to face other levels of scarcity to some degree.

Not only is this lack of food production alarming, but fighting has cut off supply chains throughout the region. A recent attack on a UN relief barge, for instance, has forced aid organizations to carefully re-evaluate their deliveries. This lack of access has also affected intra-country markets, which would otherwise buffer the impact of food scarcity in the northern states.  

Usually, surrounding communities can supply those facing immediate shortages, but the threat of warring parties is discouraging relief. The problem will only get worse as the rains begin and the majority of the country’s simple dirt roads become impassible or damaged by flooding. Even food airdrops by aid organizations are becoming difficult as many local runways turn to mud and can no longer support relief operations. With a long rainy season ahead, existing populations will be isolated while refugee camps, often overcrowded, will be forced to deal with dwindling supplies.

As each side stalls negotiations, there seems to be no recognition that “winning” will be empty if the conflict persists.  The UN has already said South Sudan could face the worst famine since the 1980s, a humanitarian crisis that would throw the country further into chaos.   To prevent this crisis from happening, warring leaders need to protect aid efforts and include food provisions in the terms of a future peace agreement.

This could take the form of guaranteed aid distribution, relief access, or financial contributions, but international negotiators need to stress that stable governance will be immensely more difficult should famine strike.

Continued fighting will only set up either side, no matter who is in control, for failure.  By addressing food security now, South Sudan can proactively set a foundation for peace, and only then, realistically discuss a post-conflict future.

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Ricky Passarelli is a research associate for the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

[Photos courtesy of Bernard HeninOxfam International, and FAO Research & Extension]

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