South Sudanese on remote islands wasting to “skin and bones” as swamps cut off aid

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 11 June 2014 11:11 GMT

Severely malnourished child in stabilisation centre in Ganyliel Unity State with nutritious food plumpy nut. Photo by Medair/Wendy van Amerongen, 2014

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With no food in their fields or marketplaces, people have been surviving on leaves and water lily seeds

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Thousands of people are slowly starving on the remote islands of Ganyliel, in Unity State, cut off from the rest of South Sudan by swamps and fighting.

With no food in their fields or marketplaces, people have been surviving on leaves and water lily seeds. Global acute malnutrition rates have soared to 31 percent, double the World Health Organisation’s crisis threshold of 15 percent, the medical charity Medair said.

"People are very wasted and thin," Trina Helderman, a nutrition adviser with Medair, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “A lot of times … you will see malnourished children under five years but when you start to see six to ten year olds and adults who are skin and bones, that’s when it’s concerning.”

Fighting between government forces and rebels, which broke out in December, has triggered a hunger crisis in South Sudan. Some 3.5 million people, or a third of the population, are suffering acute or emergency-level food shortages, including a million unable to meet basic needs, the United Nations says.


Ganyliel is in Panjiyar County, and is one of the worst affected parts of the country, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. In May, it said that Panjiyar was among the counties of “greatest concern” where famine is possible in the next four months.

Last year’s harvest was destroyed by floods and wild foods are becoming harder to find. Women now have to walk further into the swamps to get water lily seeds, Helderman said.

"If those seeds are all they have and they are gone, then there is really not much there for them to eat at all," she said.

In April, Medair opened a stabilisation centre in Ganyliel to treat severe acute malnutrition (SAM), which leads to death without therapeutic feeding. Three of the 18 children they have admitted have died.

More than 1,400 children are being treated at home for moderate acute malnutrition (MAM), which stands at 22 percent, and is the precursor to SAM.

Malnourished children are given are peanut butter-based food, called plumpy, to boost their calorific intake. But it is hard for them to recover when there is no food at home.

"If one child in the family qualifies [as malnourished] and the other doesn’t, then they both share the plumpy because they are also hungry," said Helderman.


Ganyliel’s population has doubled to 30,000 since December, with destitute people fleeing into the swamp to escape fighting in towns such as Leer and Mayendit.

The market is empty.

"Normally goods would come from Juba, but no-one dares to transport anything through that area now," said Wendy van Amerongen, Medair’s South Sudan spokeswoman.

The rainy season has made roads impassable and even the nearest airstrip is too muddy for planes to land. The only option left is airdrops, which are expensive and slow.

In May, the World Food Programme (WFP) air-dropped 15 days of rations for 25,000 people. This took seven flights over four days, said Amanda Lawrence-Brown, WFP’s spokeswoman in Nairobi.

Continued food aid and seeds for planting are vital for people in Ganyliel to reach the next harvest.

"If those two things are not provided for, I think things will probably get worse and maybe even move into a famine level crisis," Helderman said.

Donors pledged more than $600 million in May towards a $1.8 billion response plan to help avert a crisis which aid agencies said could be the biggest since the 1984 Ethiopian famine.

Last week, a senior U.N. official said that South Sudan can only avoid famine if the shaky ceasefire holds and displaced people displaced are able to return home in the next few weeks to plant crops.

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