The Big Danger in South Sudan May Be Empty Stomachs, Not Loaded Guns

(Bloomberg) -- After five years of civil war, South Sudan’s biggest danger may not be loaded guns but empty bellies.

Even as the government and rebels prepare to join forces to end a conflict that’s claimed almost 400,000 lives, the threat of famine is stalking the East African country. With local farming yet to recover, almost seven million people -- more than half the population -- may face severe food shortages between May and July, according to the United Nations.

The war “has prevented farmers from planting and harvesting season after season, and left people with few sources of income to alleviate deepening hunger,” said Elysia Buchanan, a policy adviser at Oxfam International, the London-based charity. “It has taken years to create this crisis, and will take even longer to reverse it.”

The Big Danger in South Sudan May Be Empty Stomachs, Not Loaded Guns

Such grim forecasts show the stark challenges for South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and the main rebel leader Riek Machar, whose initial plan to end a bitter rivalry and form an expanded government next month is facing delays. The country hosts sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil reserves and swathes of fertile land, but ranks 187th out of 189 on the UN’s Human Development Index.

National Breadbasket

Talks for the latest peace deal began around mid-2018 and the guns have since largely fallen silent in the oil-rich north. Yet the Equatoria region that stretches from the capital, Juba, to the Ugandan border -- and was known as South Sudan’s breadbasket for the grain, fruit and vegetables that helped feed the nation -- has seen sporadic unrest.

Figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization show that total output of cereal crops in 2018 fell to 764,000 tons from 825,000 tons the year before, hit by a combination of insecurity, poor rainfall and pests such as fall armyworms. Though some farmers returned to their land due to better security after September’s accord, “the conflict continued to severely affect agricultural activities, constraining access to fields,” the FAO said.

“We have got a couple of months of the dry season still to run, then there will be the rains and it will take crops to grow before they can be harvested,” the head of the UN mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, told reporters in Juba on March 27. “We are looking towards the end of the year, certainly into September and October, before we are going to see an alleviation of the food-security problem.”

Famine Abated

It’s just the latest warning: famine was announced in parts of the north in February 2017, the first such declaration anywhere in the world since Somalia was gripped by mass hunger in 2011. The outbreak abated after intensive aid efforts, though it’s threatened to resurface as lasting peace has remained elusive.

Signing a peace deal “doesn’t mean food will fall from heaven and everything will be OK,” said James Okuk, a politics professor at the University of Juba. Any transitional government that’s formed may need at least two years before it can begin to tackle security, food and refugee issues, he said.

The World Food Programme is targeting about 5.4 million people with aid, “including life-saving food distributions to the most vulnerable,” the acting director in South Sudan, Simon Cammelbeeck, said in an emailed response to questions. It will also disburse about $76 million in cash assistance for citizens to buy food.

Respecting Deal

The Sudanese army’s ousting of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir, who mediated between Machar and Kiir, has sparked concerns it could undermine their accord. South Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said Sudan’s transitional military council has assured it that the deal will be respected.

Peace can’t come soon enough for Abel Sudani. The 35-year-old’s 65-acre farm in Equatoria once employed 140 people and provided the nearby regional capital of Yambio with corn, nuts, pineapples and bananas. But when armed men stormed the area, killing and abducting civilians, his workforce fled. It still hasn’t returned.

“It’s going to take time to begin producing like we did before,” he said.

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