Last week in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, I had dinner with colleagues at a popular restaurant, a place that is normally packed with people. This time it was almost empty. Earlier that morning, fighting had been reported in the city, and it soon spread to several areas.
That night, from our rooftop, we could see black smoke from in the distance, and hear the smattering of gunfire. The following morning the casualty count bore testimony to the crisis this young country finds itself in, with local media reporting some 25 dead.
The violence in South Sudan only appears to be intensifying; with it, the chances of a humanitarian disaster, in the shape of millions displaced, regional conflict and a food crisis possibly escalating into a famine.
This is a country that poses many challenges for aid distribution – there are barely any roads outside the capital that are not just dirt tracks, this in a country the size of France - but nonetheless, one that is increasing need of emergency assistance.
Before fighting re-ignited, South Sudan wasn’t short of challenges: crushing poverty, an illiteracy rate around 80 percent and a child mortality rate of around one in ten for children under five. In this current conflict, children risk separation from their families and recruitment into armed groups, sometimes forcibly and sometimes voluntarily as children and their parents opt for the least worst option in a world of extreme poverty.
A large humanitarian presence exists in the country, topped by a substantial United Nations mission and armed forces from other countries. They are here to support and stabilise the country as it seeks to recover from decades of strife and conflict, and its emergence as an independent state from the north.
But the last few months have seen a flurry of activity as political turmoil has triggered escalating violence which has in turn created an impending food emergency. Political turmoil and violence fuel the conflict which exacerbates the food crisis, further intensifying the turmoil and violence. Together these factors are threatening to undo the fragile path South Sudan has trod made since independence.
Heavily reliant on agriculture, if the planting season in April is missed, South Sudan may be heading for a severe food crisis - even famine - later this year. The current level of violence and displacement is making planting impossible in some areas. Insecurity means that with markets closed and trade suspended, seeds and equipment are not available for planting.
World Vision South Sudan national director, Perry Mansfield, tells me that unless the fighting stops and planting is allowed to resume quickly – it should cover March through May - the people of South Sudan will see a major humanitarian disaster in 2014. There will be counties that have nothing to harvest for sale, and no crops to eat.
The international community has a choice. One is to respond later in the year, during or after the rainy season when it will be much more difficult and expensive as the suffering will have dragged on and increased.
The second choice is to respond now to prevent a bad situation from becoming a catastrophe.
We should have learned from Somalia and the Sahel that only thing we gain by waiting is more time to regret.