Q & A: How real is the threat of famine in South Sudan?

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 14 May 2014 16:37 GMT

Children sing slogans against South Sudan's President Salva Kiir in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp in the United Nations Mission In South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Juba May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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Katy Migiro asks WFP’s South Sudan country director if the F-word is keeping him awake at night

Katy Migiro 

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – If South Sudan slips into famine, it will be largely because the world’s largest transporter of food aid, the World Food Programme (WFP), couldn’t reach the hungry. 

Katy Migiro asked Mike Sackett, WFP’s South Sudan country director ad interim, if the F-word is keeping him awake at night. 

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis of May 9 says that “some populations within counties face the risk of famine unless adequate humanitarian assistance is delivered” before August.  Are you worried? 

As far as the next three months go, at least, we are not facing famine. However, we are facing a really very serious food insecurity problem. 

Nobody in WFP has used the F-word. Some of our colleagues, who are not perhaps as close to this issue as we are, have done so. But that was a bit earlier on in February. 

WFP, in March and the early days of April, conducted food security assessments in all 10 states. And I am not aware of any U.N. colleague who has used the F-word in the last six weeks. That’s a reflection that they now have a better understanding and handle on the situation. 

Can you confidently say there won’t be a famine? 

We are not so worried for 2014 about people getting into famine. 

But we do foresee potential problems down the line. This will be dependent on the outcome of the harvest and the ability of humanitarians to deliver assistance in the interim. 

This problem certainly can’t be ruled out in the early to middle months of 2015. 

Which parts of the country are worst hit? 

The three states that we are most concerned about are Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile. There’s active military conflict which makes it very difficult for humanitarians to get in and work. 

How serious are the food shortages in these places? The IPC grades hunger on a scale between one and five, where category one is minimal food insecurity and category five is famine. 

In Unity, we’ve got about 475,000 people rated as category four (emergency) between June and August out of a population of about 1.1 million. This means they need urgent humanitarian assistance to save lives. 

In Jonglei, we’ve got a further 329,000 people in category four out of a population of 1.5 million. In Upper Nile, we’ve got an estimated 244,000 people out of a population of 1.3 million. 

There are about another 300,000 people in the other states, so the total is 1.4 million category fours who would be our primary focus of concern in the next three months. 

And the number of people in category three (crisis), where malnutrition is approaching the emergency threshold of 15 percent? 

The total (in South Sudan) is 2.6 million from June to August. 

How are you getting food to those in need? 

The basic approach is to get as much in by surface, by truck, as possible. That has been disrupted by primarily by the military action. We probably delivered less than half of the food we wanted to preposition. 

The fallback position is airdrops and airlifts. We are increasingly resorting to that as the rains have well and truly started. We are now going into ramping up the air deliveries as the principal means of access in the most difficult areas. 

When will the roads dry up again? 

The rain tails off in September. If we have a heavier than average wet season, we might find it difficult to get much road access before mid November. 

If the ceasefire holds, what kind of activities could we see? 

If there was a genuine cessation of hostilities, it would enable good numbers of the population to get a crop planted. 

While most farmers in a normal situation would take advantage of rains beginning in early April, useful planting can continue right through July and possibly into August. 

Secondly, a period of tranquillity would immediately help us to step up our deliveries. 

Food that is in country – that could be easily trucked to where it is needed in Maban (county in Upper Nile state) – has been held up for more than three weeks now due to the fighting that broke out in Renk (county in Upper Nile state) around 16 April. 

What are your hopes for the Oslo donor conference on May 20? 

WFP, amongst others, is desperately waiting the outcome of this. We need that to be a big response, arguably for WFP $200 million to $300 million plus. 

We are ramping up our deliveries. What we hope to deliver in May, all being well, will be twice what we delivered in April. We need more donors to give money if we are to maintain the flow of food after one month. 

We have various mechanisms which can translate a cash pledge made in Berlin or Brussels into food that is in the corridor between Mombasa and Juba almost overnight. But we can’t mobilise that food without donors. 

That’s one of the things that keeps me awake at night. If we don’t have more resources, then your chances of hearing the F-word in the future will go up. 

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