It’s now more than a month since famine was declared in parts of South Sudan. For children in the world’s youngest country, the worsening food crisis comes at a time when they already face countless challenges on a daily basis.
The scale of the crisis engulfing the country is staggering. Over 4 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, with almost 1.9 million people displaced inside the country since fighting began in December 2013. More than 1.6 million people have fled to neighbouring countries in search of safety and UNICEF estimates that over one million children will be acutely malnourished in 2017.
The current deterioration in food security and nutrition is mostly due to the conflict and insecurity, the effects of the economic crisis, and depleted stocks from the last harvest.
For the children and families in the affected areas, and indeed across the country, getting enough food is just one of the challenges they face each and every day. The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of children from their homes, deprived them of education and basic health services and left them at risk of violence, recruitment, and even death.
The ongoing conflict has caused repeated displacement of communities, leaving millions of people scattered across the country in far-flung locations that make it incredibly difficult to reach children with vital supplies and services like clean water, sanitation, food, medicine, and education.
This means agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) must coordinate complex response missions to get basic supplies and services to families living in often very remote and hard-to-reach locations, but ongoing tensions and fighting means that just getting to many areas is incredibly challenging.
Since the declaration of famine in Unity State on 20 February, however, the WFP and UNICEF have been able to complete eight Integrated Rapid Response Mechanism (IRRM) missions to Unity State, delivering lifesaving supplies and services to more than 170,000 people living there.
Hearing from UNICEF staff who are part of these missions, the sheer scale of the challenge that community’s face becomes clear.
Dr. Panyuan Joseph Baluang, part of the UNICEF team who reached Aburoc, in Upper Nile State, described the situation they found there: “Most families are spending every hour of the day sat in the shade of the few trees. The children looked traumatized, and families have very little food for survival.” Some families, already struggling to find enough food to survive, are taking on the added responsibility of orphans who have lost their parents to the conflict.
Even the basic supplies included in the emergency missions are vitally important to families with little or no other support. In Koch, one of the areas affected by famine, a Christopher Otti, a UNICEF worker explained that ‘”the majority of health and nutrition facilities have been destroyed, and supplies and equipment looted or ruined in the fighting.” So far this year, joint UNICEF-WFP teams – bringing assistance via plane and helicopter – have now reached more than 450,000 people, including over 51,000 children under the age of five.
Using a combination of airdrops and airlifts, WFP delivers food assistance and nutrition supplements while UNICEF provides life-saving nutrition and basic health services, including immunizing children against polio and measles and giving out learning materials and water, sanitation and hygiene supplies. Both agencies provide nutrition screening and treatment, as well as information and messages on nutrition. Children who are separated from their families, or unaccompanied, are registered to begin the reunification process.
For many communities reached by the missions, it is the first aid they have received for months, or sometimes even years, and with many public services destroyed or cut off by the conflict, the missions can mean the difference between life and death.
Benjamin Lokoyo, a UNICEF education worker who was part of the IRRM mission to Leer, described the impact these missions have. “It gives the communities some glimpse of hope, WFP providing food and UNICEF was there to give vaccinations to children, to do nutrition screening and to help malnourished children.”
As access improves UNICEF will continue to broaden its rapid response air missions to remote parts of the country, 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.
Joe English is a Communications Specialist for UNICEF based in New York. He is currently in Juba, South Sudan