Hunger and malnutrition are constant companions to millions of people in South Sudan, a country that has endured years of civil conflict, a shaky peace process and political uncertainty.
Food insecurity in the world’s newest country, which is also plagued by floods and COVID-19, continues to increase. In fact, if the situation deteriorates further, parts of South Sudan could soon fall into famine.
As the country director for the World Food Program in South Sudan, Matthew Hollingsworth leads one of the largest WFP operations in the world. “We’re about 1,250 people strong in terms of our staff, the vast majority of whom are South Sudanese,” he said in a FaceTime interview from his base in the capital city of Juba.
“We aim to feed around 5.3 million people every year. We have 15 offices and we are present in every state of South Sudan.”
What is the current state of food insecurity in South Sudan?
“Unfortunately, humanitarian conditions in South Sudan have been getting worse,” Hollingsworth replied. “Food insecurity is at its highest levels since South Sudan gained independence in 2011. The figures that we’re talking about are staggering. Some 60 per cent of the population — that’s 7.24 million people — are facing severe acute hunger at the height of this lean season, starting in July.”
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification is used by United Nations agencies, national governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups to categorize the various levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. For example, famine is classified as IPC Phase 5.
“Our greatest concern around the country is the hard-to-reach areas, where there are some 110,000 people in IPC Phase 5,” Hollingsworth said. “That means catastrophic food insecurity; that means starvation.” But he said the WFP is attempting to avoid famine.
In addition, the WFP reports there are 1.4 million people who are suffering in IPC Phase 4, which means they are experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity.
So far in 2021, the WFP has been “scaling up” food assistance in the hardest hit states and counties, “so that we can try to stop this alarming level of food insecurity,” he said.
Rising food insecurity in South Sudan is caused by multiple problems. “The culprits, as it were, can be described in the ‘three Cs’,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s climate change, it’s COVID-19, and, fundamentally under all of that, it’s conflict. And it’s an accumulation of these ‘three Cs’ that have caused the really horrific food insecurity that the people of South Sudan are facing this year.”
For the past two years, climate change-related extreme weather has devastated South Sudan. “We saw not only above-average levels of rainfall, but record levels of flooding, which wreaked havoc on people’s lives and livelihoods, on homes, on their farmlands, on their harvests and on their animals,” Hollingsworth explained.
“In 2020, nearly a million people were displaced from their homes as a result of these extreme weather patterns. Sadly, what we are seeing at the moment is the likelihood we’re going to see a third year of very heavy rains in South Sudan and in the region, which will have a very significant impact on people’s lives yet again.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is making life more difficult for vulnerable people in South Sudan in both urban and rural areas, Hollingsworth said. The secondary impacts of COVID-19 are significant, affecting the economy, supply chains, availability of food and the ability of people to access markets.
“Underpinning all of this is chronic conflict,” he said of the third C. Conflict tends to hit remote locations harder, “because those locations have been cut off from development” and have “little access to basic services. And the communities themselves have been marginalized for many years.”
People displaced by conflict also suffer the loss of assets and experience “deeper poverty” and “increased food insecurity,” Hollingsworth noted.
What are the demographics of the affected populations?
“The harsh reality is that conflict and climate change tend to hit the most vulnerable people in society, particularly women and children and the elderly, worse,” Hollingsworth replied. And he pointed out that there are approximately 300,000 refugees seeking safe haven in South Sudan from such countries as neighbouring Sudan, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo. “We also have at least 1.5 million internally displaced people in South Sudan, who have had to leave their homes,” largely due to conflict.
“We support some 260,000 refugees and a million people who are internally displaced,” he revealed. Refugees and IDPs tend to have limited options to work and limited access to land to cultivate, “so their coping mechanisms are much worse,” the WFP staffer stated. Of the 5.3 million people that the WFP serves, more than 55 per cent are women and children.
Child and maternal malnutrition
How would you describe the severity of malnourishment of those affected by food shortages, especially children?
Malnutrition is experienced most by young mothers who are still breastfeeding and by pregnant women, Hollingsworth answered. Children under the age of five also tend to be malnourished.
“This year, there’s 1.4 million under the age of five years old expected to be acutely malnourished and in need of treatment,” he said. “Close to half a million pregnant women and nursing mothers are expected to be acutely malnourished.”
According to Hollingsworth, 16 per cent of all young mothers and children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. “That’s over the global emergency threshold; the global emergency threshold is 15 per cent,” he added.
In some parts of South Sudan, the levels of malnutrition are much higher. “For example, in parts of Jonglei State, you see the global acute malnutrition levels at 28 per cent,” he said.
Food shortages, a lack of diversity of food and shortages of nutritious food cause malnutrition. Other factors also contribute to acute malnutrition. “For example, the high prevalence of diseases, malaria being one,” Hollingsworth said. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene, and open defecation “exist in every area of the country.”
In addition, there is a lack of access to health care and nutrition services in South Sudan. “What this means for young mothers and children in the country, of course, is not only do you see very high levels of very serious malnutrition that needs to be treated, but you also see very serious levels of stunting as well. Because children don’t get the nutrition that they need to grow up healthily in mind and body.”
During the first three months of 2021, “we have been supporting 4,300 pregnant women in the country and 5,000 children under the age of five, treating them for moderate acute malnutrition,” Hollingsworth said. “And we do that through targeted supplementary feeding programs. But clearly this is a very serious problem and one that the World Food Program, UNICEF and World Health Organization, and a large number of non-governmental organizations, are all working together to really focus our resources and support to try and bring these numbers under the emergency threshold. But it’s already a great worry that they’ve gone above it.”
Reduction in food assistance
On April 8, the World Food Program announced a reduction in food rations for refugees and internally displaced people in South Sudan. “The rations will be reduced from this month and affect nearly 700,000 refugees and internally displaced people, who will now receive 50 per cent of a full ration, down from 70 per cent,” a WFP news statement reads. “The impacted populations include some 440,000 internally displaced people in Bentiu, Bor, Juba, Malakal, Mingkaman and Wau, as well as nearly 260,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and Sudan, who rely on WFP assistance to meet most of their food needs.”
Why is WFP reducing food assistance to people in need in South Sudan?
“Very simply, because we don’t have the resources to meet the needs,” the WFP official replied. “We have very significant funding gaps, and the humanitarian needs of the country are outpacing the resources we have.”
Describing the situation as “horrific,” Hollingsworth explained that the WFP had to “take the decision to reduce the rations we give to the hungry in order to give more rations to the starving.” He said it was a “painful” decision, but one that needed to be made in order to prevent the onset of famine in parts of South Sudan.
“We are making sure that even though we are reducing rations for some — in this case refugees and IDPs in the country — we are still making sure that we give them something. But we have to focus, if we are responsible in our role, on prioritizing those who are on the brink of starvation.”
However, he declared that the WFP is “ring fencing” the treatment and prevention of malnutrition in women and children. “And those (programs) remain unaffected” by the decision to reduce rations. “And we are trying very hard with our colleagues in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to ensure that even in refugee and IDP camps we can support families and perhaps improve their livelihoods, improve their job prospects, grow a little bit more food in their home garden or small patch of land if they have land available, to take the edge off.”
The WFP said it requires US$125 million to run its food assistance operations over the next six months, including providing larger food rations for refugees and IDPs.
Role for Canada
How can Canadians help?
The WFP official said it is important to raise awareness of South Sudan and to tell the story of its people.
“South Sudan is still the world’s youngest country. It is our 10-year anniversary this year; 2011 was the year of independence. And we think that the world owes it to the residents, the communities and the citizens of South Sudan to try to ensure that this is a successful country.”
Canada is one the WFP’s top supporters. And the Canadian government provides humanitarian funding and resilience building funding in South Sudan.
“This year Canada has given the World Food Program in South Sudan $17 million that supports our crisis response programs,” Hollingsworth said. For example, Canada supports school meals.
In addition, Hollingsworth urged Canada to advocate for an end to civil strife in South Sudan by supporting the precarious peace agreement. “Because supporting the peace efforts in South Sudan means that we can change the conditions of the country that have created the hunger that this country is facing; change the conditions in the country that hamper us from completing our humanitarian tasks and our resilience building efforts,” he concluded.
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.