It is the first famine announced in any part of the world in six years.
The South Sudanese government and three United Nations agencies have declared nearly 100,000 people are facing starvation in two counties of the country.
One million more are on the brink of famine.
The chairman of South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, Isaiah Chol Aruai, explains the situation.
“The convergence of evidence shows that the long-term effects of the conflict, coupled with high food prices, economic crisis, low agricultural production and depleted livelihood options, are all contributing to the deterioration of the food security situation, resulting in 4.9 million people – which is about 42 per cent of the population – estimated to be severely food insecure.”
He says nearly half of the population will be affected by midyear.
“This is projected to increase to 5.5 million people, roughly 47 per cent of the national population, at the height of the 2017 lean season in July. The magnitude of these food insecure populations is unprecedented across all periods.”
The executive director of the aid group UNICEF UK, Mike Penrose, says the declaration of a famine is more distressing than what most people could imagine.
“Famines are extremely rare. There’s been less than a handful over the last 60 years that have actually been declared, mostly in East Africa. And a famine is when 30 per cent of the population is suffering from acute malnutrition, where 20 per cent has really strained food supplies and where more than two per 10,000 per day of the population are dying. So a famine is only declared when it’s become so bad that people are actually dying from hunger.”
World Food Program spokeswoman Challiss McDonough says the counties of Leer and Mayendit are devastated by famine.
“Everybody knows that, if we say there’s a famine, it’s because there really is the most serious kind of humanitarian crisis that we can imagine, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing in those two areas of South Sudan right now. So, it’s not a word that we use lightly, and it’s one that I had hoped that I wasn’t going to have to use to describe the situation in South Sudan, but, unfortunately, we’ve reached the position where that’s actually what’s happening, and so we have to call it what it is, and that’s a famine.”
A debilitating civil war that ignited in South Sudan in 2013 and a subsequent economic collapse have been blamed for the disaster.
United Nations humanitarian coordinator Eugene Owuso says that has posed many challenges for aid workers.
“The food insecurity crisis today is largely because of the conflict, is largely because of insecurity, is largely because of the access challenges that humanitarians have periodically had. It’s also because of attacks on humanitarian workers and also the looting of humanitarian assets.”
The civil war has increasingly split South Sudan along ethnic lines, leading the United Nations to warn of a potential genocide.
Ms McDonough has pleaded for greater access to the affected areas to provide food to starving people.
“People don’t have to die of hunger. We can help them. In this case, specifically, humanitarian agencies have been struggling to access those two parts of South Sudan for years in order to be able to get, to reliably get, food and other kinds of humanitarian assistance to people. And if we had access to those areas, we could have kept this from happening.”
UNICEF says it believes Somalia and war-torn Yemen are also on the brink of famine.