As rain bombarded the tens of thousands of people who continue to seek safety in a UN camp in Malakal, most hurried to their plastic sheeting homes. The people of this ransacked city – and their fellow citizens across conflict-affected South Sudan – have been under attack since conflict broke out in December. First it was the mortars, then the looting, then more violence, then cholera, and now: torrential rains, and in the words of UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, “looming famine.”
Walking through knee deep mud in the desperately overcrowded camp, Mr. Lake went from feeding centre, to emergency nutrition ward, and then from house to house. He travelled with World Food Programme’s Executive Director, Ms. Ertharin Cousin.
“It’s as bad as anything I have ever seen,” said Mr. Lake. In parts the camp looked liked a cyclone had been through – chairs and beds floating in the flood water; families’ lone possessions sunken in green sludge. There is intractable maddening mud everywhere.
As a result, children face disease at every corner, which in turn makes them at greater risk of malnutrition. And beyond those in the camp in Malakal, are more than 500,000 more who fled violence and are on the run across their country.
Mr. Lake and Ms. Cousin said they fear the world is allowing a repeat of what occurred in Somalia and the Horn of Africa just three years ago, when early warnings of extreme hunger and escalating malnutrition went largely unheeded until official famine levels were announced.
Nearly one million children under five years old in South Sudan will require treatment for acute malnutrition in 2014, according to UNICEF and WFP. The numbers are immense; Mr. Lake saw that each wears the face of a child. “There were children I saw today suffering from severe acute malnutrition who I thought clearly would not survive tomorrow,” he said. “For these children whether or not a famine is declared is immaterial. The world should not wait for a famine to be announced while children here are dying each and every day.”
UNICEF’s response to the crisis has reached more than 40,000 children with severe acute malnutrition, around 500,000 with water and sanitation, and vaccinated hundreds of thousands. Given the severity of the situation for the children of South Sudan, all life-saving support must be expanded.
“I talked to two doctors in the clinic in the camp,” said Mr Lake, “and they said they were making a terrible calculation: they can start to cut back now on the medicine they are giving to their patients because they don’t know whether they will have supplies in month or two; or they can give the can give the patients everything they need now and pray that they get more supplies in a month or two. As I looked around the tent and looked at the patients, I realized they only have one choice – the one that they are making – which is to continue to do everything they can now and just hope for the best.”
With the doctors’ drive, and hope, UNICEF will continue to broaden its rapid response air missions to the remotest parts of the conflict zones, seeking to save the tens of thousands of child lives at risk, all the time stressing that leaders must find peace for the children of South Sudan.
“We all have to do more,” said Mr Lake, “and quickly, to keep more children alive.”
James Elder is UNICEF’s Chief of Communication for East & Southern Africa. He is presently in South Sudan.