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BENTIU, South Sudan — The signs of warring between government and opposition forces are fresh in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country. Scorched earth marks where homes recently stood in Bentiu, and abandoned cars and tanks along with the remnants of two crashed airplanes litter the roads like some giant child’s abandoned toys.
It is peaceful here now, but the peace is relative. In Bentiu’s displacement sites where people have sought safety since the fighting that broke out in December, an hour’s worth of rain can bring delivery of relief supplies to a halt, and the real rains, the ones that will threaten to wash away everything in their path, are still seven weeks out.
The day I arrived, those 60 minutes of water pouring from the sky meant our morning water trucks could not pull into Bentiu’s UNMISS Protection of Civilians site until almost lunchtime. Thirsty families are collecting water from a nearby swamp where sewage flows openly, making the outbreak of disease a pressing possibility if not a certainty.
Those swamps are dangerous in other ways: a child drowned there several days ago, amplifying the tragedy of war and flight for his family. Before the rains come, Concern, working in sites in both Bentiu and the capital of Juba, is doing all it can to provide emergency shelter reinforcement kits and essential items, treat malnutrition, and maintain latrines and sanitation standards, racing against the end of one day, and the start of a next.
But the flooding and accompanying disease is only one among the many problems these families face in what is quickly shaping up to be the most pressing humanitarian crisis in Africa. South Sudanese rely on subsistence farming to survive, and at least some of their seeds should be in the ground already. But the violence that shuddered through the country has robbed its people of the ability to plant. The drop-dead date for getting seeds in the ground is the end of May before the rains come in earnest.
Since the crisis began four months ago, over one million people have been driven from their homes, 800,000 internally displaced and another 250,000 making their way into Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda or Sudan, officials estimate. Some 3.7 million people, a third of the country’s population, are at risk of starvation, the United Nations has said.
A ceasefire accord was signed on January 23, but has been repeatedly defied by both sides of the conflict, leaving South Sudanese fearful for their immediate and long-term future. One woman I met, named Ada, traveled with 11 family members from Leer to Bentiu, some 135 kilometers away, arriving with nothing. Ada said their home was looted, and she, like many others, does not expect to return soon. I spoke to her on a small plot at the edge of the displacement site where her family prepared to build a new shelter using shared tools. Even with that, of course, they have no sustainable livelihood, no way to plan for what is ahead. And many of the displaced fear that renewed fighting could come from any side, including aerial bombardment.
There are also many in South Sudan who cannot be reached at all due to insecurity; for them, Concern and others are flying in and distributing life-saving supplies—before the rainy season prevents us from doing so.
The United States played a key role in giving birth to South Sudan in the summer of 2011, and last week President Obama authorized sanctions against anyone fomenting violence or blocking the peace process. But what is needed most on the ground is immediate, focused humanitarian efforts to prevent imminent disease and starvation. We cannot—must not—look away.
Concern Worldwide is working with those affected by the conflict in South Sudan, distributing emergency food and household supplies, providing water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and treating malnutrition in young children. For more, visit concernusa.org.