South Sudan: the risk of ‘silent famine’ escalates as conflict continues

8 August 2014

Famine in Sudan was brought to the world’s attention in 1994 by Kevin Carter’s shocking photo of a starving Sudanese boy crouched under a vulture’s predatory gaze. As yet, no equivalent image has emerged from today’s growing crisis in the Republic of South Sudan to precipitate a comparable outpouring of aid and awareness.

The level of international attention on South Sudan is low in contrast to high-profile humanitarian emergencies such as Syria. This is in spite of comparable numbers of people in urgent need of hunger-relief. The World Food Programme (WFP) plans to assist 4 million in Syria each month in 2014 and there are currently an estimated 3.9 million South Sudanese in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Only in the past few days has #famine started to trend alongside #SouthSudan.

Whereas in Syria the UN mounted a record breaking humanitarian campaign of $6.5 billion earlier in 2014, in South Sudan the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has so far received only $42 million of the $108 million it appealed for as part of the Crisis Response Plan in June. More worrying is the fact that evidence of the impending crisis emerged as early as February 2014, two months after the world’s youngest country plunged into civil war.

Robert Piper, the UN Regional Humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel belt region (a semi-arid area encompassing South Sudan), has drawn a direct link between the impending crisis in Sudan and the Syrian Appeal. He warned that the appeal for more than $2 billion to care for those in need of food in the region may fall short because of the UN’s appeal for Syria. This implies that focus on Syria has adversely affected the international response to the crisis in South Sudan.


Civil War broke out in South Sudan on 15th December 2013 after an alleged coup by former Vice President Riek Machar against President Salva Kiir. Thousands have been killed in the eight month conflict and both government and rebel factions have been accused of mass atrocities. Arguably most influential in bringing about the current state of food insecurity in the country has been the 1.1 million people (IDPs) internally displaced by the violence.

Some commentators cite ethnic hostilities between the Dinka people (associated with government) and Nuer (those broadly aligned to the rebel faction) as the root of the conflict. But reports that the Nuer White Army regularly acts outside of Riek Machar’s control serves to counter this view.  Some even say that if the two warring factions were to reach an agreement by 10th August (the deadline for the recently resumed peace talks) the atrocities perpetrated by his troops would not abate. This speculation has a precedent in the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement reached on 23rd January. In theory this brought an end to the fighting but in reality the conflict continued regardless.  This instance, among many others, reinforces the view that perpetrators of conflict and violence in South Sudan and other warring African countries carry out atrocities with impunity. Indeed, the failure of Machar’s rebels to attend the second day of the recently rekindled peace talks points to the persistence of the conflict,  despite calls for peace from within the country and the international community. Youth and Women’s groups have all put pressure on the warring parties to resume the talks and US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as Assistant Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet have both warned that South Sudan is now on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.

A ‘man-made’ catastrophe

The detrimental impact ongoing conflict has had on crop yield has been tremendous. At the end of last month the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued a joint statement explaining that terrorism, weak governance and recurrent droughts in the Sahel region have severely exacerbated food insecurity. The crisis has become even more pressing in recent months since the rainy season coincided with ongoing conflict to further disrupt crop planting and farming – upon which 95 per cent of the population depends. In addition, the roads needed by aid organisations to conduct their work have been severely damaged by rain, and flooding has added to the number of IDPs – particularly in regions such as Unity State. For example, flooding in Mayom country has displaced 42,000 people over the past week.

A team of representatives for the UN, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) and Save the Children recently reported from Unity, the most affected state, that malnutrition rates have risen significantly, elevating the situation from the Crisis (Phase 3) to Emergency (Phase 4) Integrated Phase Classification (IPC). Although they report that ‘famine’ (IPC Phase 5) has not yet been reached, it should be recognised that most people don’t live long enough to die of hunger. Rather, as food stocks dwindle people suffering from malnutrition become increasingly susceptible to diseases and stomach problems. In other words, a weakened immune system can be just as serious a problem, if not more so, than an empty stomach.

The most vulnerable sections of society are those malnourished people who cannot ward off diseases and stomach problems that a healthy person would normally fight, such as pregnant women, children under the age of five and the elderly. According to UNICEF, the prevalence of acute malnutrition among children in South Sudan is the highest of any country in the world. It estimates that 235,000 children under the age of five will require treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year – twice as many as last year. Furthermore, as many as 675,000 children will need treatment for moderate acute malnutrition.

HART’s Visit Report to South Sudan

A team from HART visited South Sudan in late February of this year. Their first stop was Abyei, the focus of territorial dispute between Sudan and its young neighbour. Abyei is home to a UN Interim Security Force that comprises of one of the highest troop densities of any UN peace keeping force. This is also the location of a high proportion of refugees who have fled from the South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions of Sudan. The futures of Sudan and South Sudan are still deeply intertwined and to ignore the ongoing conflicts in either country would be to omit major factors that contribute towards both countries’ respective food insecurity.

The team then visited HART’s partners in Bahr-El-Ghazal who have subsequently received emergency aid from HART since the visit. A growing humanitarian crisis was evident at the time of this visit, even before the rainy season set in; the warning signs and recommended responses are all set out in our report. At the time of our visit we, along with many other NGOs and UN agencies, advocated greater funding in order to distribute supplies before rains made much of the country impassable.

The power of international media

In addition to reporting the looming potential for famine, the HART South Sudan Report noted the absence of media and accurate reporting on the situation in Abyei. This concern was reinforced last week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who issued a joint open letter to condemn the intimidation of journalists and refusal to pass laws to protect freedom of expression in the country. However, this does not appear to have deterred the government from issuing an advisory statement to humanitarian organizations telling them not to publish independent statements on food insecurity in the country without the endorsement of the government. The government statement claims ‘sole authority for making official statements about the food security status of the country’ and suggests that Salva Kiir hopes to divert the world’s attention from the deteriorating humanitarian situation in South Sudan towards his ostensible efforts towards a peace agreement with the rebel leader, Riek Machar.

Only now is the international media beginning to ask the right questions: how many people have been internally displaced by the civil war in South Sudan? Does the state of food insecurity in the country amount to a famine? Why did we not hear about this sooner? Or rather, why were the warnings not heeded?


HART continues to seek funding to support its partners’ aid relief work and development work across parts of South Sudan affected by this crisis. If you wish to donate to HART, please do so via the website or through our London office. Please let us know if your donation is restricted to our work in South Sudan.

Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust
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