A lack of food prolongs conflict in South Sudan

A group of women sing and dance as they walk home atop a dyke they constructed to control flooding in South Sudan's Jonglei State. Photo: Paul Jeffrey / ACT
A group of women sing and dance as they walk home atop a dyke they constructed to control flooding in South Sudan's Jonglei State. Photo: Paul Jeffrey / ACT

In South Sudan, the price of food claims people’s lives as well as guns. Hunger staggers society, with people only focused on where to get their next meal.

When you throw a seed in the ground, it grows into a giant mango tree.

This is a saying from South Sudanese Equatoria, the breadbasket of the country. The soil is so fertile that crops grown in the region have fed millions of South Sudanese people. Practically all of South Sudan is a perfect seedbed for produce such as rice, corn, millet, sugar cane, and fruits.

However, war has driven three quarters of the region’s population out of their homes, and vast cultivated areas stand abandoned, says Marie Makweri, who worked in South Sudan for three years as Finn Church Aid’s (FCA) peace coordinator.

The dramatic consequences are seen in the availability and prices of food products. People are lucky to have even one meal a day. Anyone knows that hunger makes a person ill-tempered. Hunger makes the prolonged conflict even worse.

”People in South Sudan say that there are more weapons than food, which is a dangerous combination. A person with no food to feed oneself or one’s family thinks of all the ways in the world to get food,” says Makweri.

5 million people still on the brink of famine

In February 2017, UN declared a famine in Unity State, located in the middle of South Sudan. About 100,000 people were in danger of starving to death. The declaration was followed by an extensive humanitarian operation, during which food ration packages were dropped in the region from World Food Program (WFP) helicopters. FCA contributed to the food aid from its disaster fund.

In June, the famine was officially over, but the daily life of the South Sudanese people did not improve in any significant way. For famine to be declared, the situation has to meet clearly defined criteria. First, a fifth of households must suffer from an extreme lack of food, and a third of the population must be acutely malnourished. In addition, people die at a certain rate – the definition of famine calls for two victims per day for every 10,000 inhabitants.

Famine is equivalent to the highest category on a UN scale of 1 to 5 measuring food security. The current situation does not meet the criteria. On the other hand, 1.5 million people live in a state of emergency (stage 4) and 3.6 million in acute food shortage (stage 3). In other words, there are 5 million South Sudanese people on the brink of famine.

”When you’re there observing the situation, it makes no real difference if people are at stage 4 or 5. The food situation remains extremely difficult”, says Makweri.

Food prices increased tenfold

FCA supports peace and food security

FCA supports peace processes, education and opportunities for subsistence in South Sudan. FCA trainings teach skills such as baking and handling food and dairy products, which improves food production.

Since last fall, FCA has carried out a food security project with 100,000 euros from a disaster collection. The project involves farming training for 500 farmers, and participants in the training are provided with seeds and tools.

The South Sudan food crisis is the result of a prolonged conflict. The conflict began as a power struggle between president Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar. The rivalry turned into war with ethnic battle lines. Kiir represents the Dinka tribe, the biggest tribe in South Sudan, and Machar is from the Nuer tribe, the second biggest.

The conflict is rooted in a dispute over resources after South Sudan gained independence in 2011 – land ownership, water, and oil. Kiir accused Machar of an attempted coup and dismissed him. There are other tribes in South Sudan as well, coaxed into alliance or played against each other. In the autumn of 2016, UN issued a warning of a possible genocide.

Fear has had catastrophic repercussions on food production. Farmers are too afraid to sow or harvest their crops. Food deliveries have become difficult, and prices at marketplaces have risen sky-high. After the fighting that started in July 2016, the price of a 3,5-kilo sack of maize meal in the capital Juba rose from 5,5 euros to 60 euros. The price is equivalent to a month’s average wages in South Sudan.

Even the prices of basic vegetables, such as tomatoes, have increased tenfold, and further from the capital, prices are even higher. Tea, sugar, and meat are luxury products that have become completely nonexistent.

The effects are seen on the street, says Makweri, who lived in Juba up until the turn of the year. Shopkeepers cannot afford to buy expensive food products and sell them at a profit, so many grocery stores have closed. Even bigger marketplaces have less items to sell, and fewer and fewer vendors selling them.

”Ordinary people can’t afford food,” says Makweri.

Food aid keeps people sane

In her work, Makweri has seen people’s preoccupation with food. Motivating them to participate in peace processes takes patience when their foremost concern is where to get the next meal for their family.

”People find it hard to even think about the next day, let alone the long-term effects of peace. They’re thinking about the next minute that they might as well use to get food.”

On the other hand, the food situation will not improve in any significant way until the conflict ends. South Sudan has all the prerequisites for self-sufficient food production, provided that peace can be achieved in the country. Food aid supported by the international community is keeping the negotiations alive.

”The message of the South Sudanese people is unanimous: the food aid should under no circumstances be discontinued. It keeps people alive and sane, and literally gives the strength to believe in peace.”

Text: Erik Nyström

Read more about about Finn Church Aid’s work in South Sudan here.