With the eyes of the world focused on conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the seemingly inexorable spread of Ebola in west Africa, the world’s newest nation stands at a critical juncture.
Aid agencies warn that South Sudan faces a catastrophe unless its leaders can deliver peace to a traumatised people, who have already exhausted their resources trying to stay alive during more than nine months of conflict.
The main fear is that fighting between the forces of President Salva Kiir and rebels loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar, will resume as the rainy season ends this month. Peace talks have yielded little progress, despite increasingly frustrated international calls for compromise, and there are fears that the vast amounts of humanitarian aid that halted the slide into famine this year may not be forthcoming again.
On Monday, leading aid agencies warned that parts of South Sudan could fall into famine early next year if fighting is renewed. The agencies – including Oxfam, CARE and Cafod – said the number of people facing dangerous levels of hunger was expected to increase by 1 million between January and March next year.
Famine was averted this year, partly due to a large influx of aid and partly because of good rains. However, with the world’s resources stretched to the limit by multiple and prolonged global crises, South Sudan might not be able to rely on the international community next year.
Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, said time is running out.
“We either need a peace agreement or we need a sustained, massive aid operation,” he said by telephone from the capital Juba. “If those things aren’t there, you are going to see a massive increase in mortality in South Sudan. It’s that simple.”
“I do worry that [aid] won’t be available because of Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Ebola. The system is very stretched and we have been plain and clear to the opposition and to the government that the generosity of the international community is not something on which anybody can count next year,” he said. “There is only so much aid out there and it’s really, really overstretched.”
Kiir and Machar have so far shown little enthusiasm for peace. The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, which is overseeing negotiations, adjourned peace talks in Ethiopia (pdf) this week until 16 October.
Lanzer said a peace deal would allow people to return to deserted farms, reopen markets and rebuild their homes. However, he added that a deal between the main political antagonists would not, on its own, be enough. Rival communities would also have to commit to peace. Violence has repeatedly sparked between tribal militias in South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011.
Signals from the stalled talks, as well as information from the ground, indicated that the chances of a “sustainable peace at the political level and the intercommunal level” were not good, Lanzer said.
“It is not only a deal in Addis [Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital] that is going to heal the wounds that have been opened in South Sudan. It’s a monumental challenge that requires enlightened leadership, deep empathy and generosity by the parties to the conflict and by key members of key communities,” he said. “ I do believe in the South Sudanese ability to find a way towards that but I think it’s going to take time.
“At the end of the day, whether there is peace or war is in the hands of a very few South Sudanese,” Lanzer said.
In their report this week, the aid agencies called on neighbouring governments and the international community to redouble diplomatic efforts, putting real pressure on the participants to end the fighting.
“If famine comes to South Sudan, it will come through the barrel of a gun. This is a man-made crisis, not one caused by the vagaries of the weather – and though humanitarian aid is vital, it cannot fix a political problem,” said Tariq Riebl, Oxfam’s country director in South Sudan.
“The international community is much better at saving lives than it is at helping solve the political problems that put lives in peril,” he said. “Nine months of the softly-softly approach to peace negotiations has failed. If the international community really wants to avert a famine then it has to make bold diplomatic efforts to bring both sides to end the fighting.”
If anything, a resurgence in conflict now could be even more devastating than it was last December.
“(People) are now at the end of their tether,” said Aimee Ansari, the head of CARE in South Sudan. “You can only sell all your livestock once. Eating seeds meant for planting keeps the gnawing hunger away for the moment, but it is mortgaging the future to meet the desperate needs of the present. The people of South Sudan did what they could to survive this year – but that means they will be vulnerable next year. They need to see an end to the fighting so normal life can resume.”
About 1.4 million people are still displaced from their homes after months of fighting that claimed at least 10,000 lives and led to a resurgence in ethnic murders. Kiir is a Dinka while Machar is a Nuer, and the conflict has been marked by atrocities on both sides. Approximately 100,000 people are still hunkered down in UN compounds across the country, too afraid to return home even when fighting has halted.
Ettie Higgins, the deputy representative in South Sudan for the UN children’s agency Unicef, said malnutrition rates among children were still very high, with the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate still close to emergency levels. The conflict had disrupted many basic social services and hundreds of thousands of children were out of school.
“It’s the multiplier effect of the conflict. We are seeing it in all aspects of life,” she said, citing a resurgence of guinea worm, cholera, and an increase in kala azar, also known as visceral leishmaniasis, which is transmitted by the bite of a sandfly.
“We’re acutely aware that heading into early next year is a critical time,” Higgins said.
Lanzer pointed out that some areas of the country – such as the capital Juba and western regions – were now relatively calm. But in the north-east and, increasingly, the centre, conditions were terrible.
“The impact of the conflict … is immediately clear to everybody and it’s really a terrible tale … the survival prospects of people get slimmer as they go deeper into the dry season.”
Another concern has been an apparent deterioration in relations between the humanitarian community and Kiir’s government. In September, the ministry of labour said that all foreign workers would have to leave by mid-October, only to retract that order within a few hours.
“It raised a lot of eyebrows but it wasn’t something we took seriously for very long. It was resolved after a couple of phone calls … It is not atypical for this kind of setting,” Lanzer said. He added that there was an ongoing dialogue with the different forces about humanitarian access to those in need.
“What I am lobbying for right now is that we get good road access as we go into this dry season,” he said. “There have been challenges but I think there are many people in the government and the opposition who are working together and working quite well together to make sure as much [aid] as possible can reach the people. I am hopeful that during the dry season we will reach more people in need and be able to preposition the aid we need.”