A man-made famine? That question has been on the lips a lot in recent days after it was declared in South Sudan. The last time this happened in Africa, or anywhere, was in Somalia in 2011.
The classification of a famine as man-made is applied to severe hunger arising from a set of foreseeable, and therefore avoidable, circumstances. According to criteria set down by the United Nations a famine is declared in an area when at least 20% of households are viewed as being exposed to extreme food shortages, 30% are malnourished and deaths from hunger has reached two persons a day for every 10,000.
Famines can result from natural or man-made causes. Natural causes include droughts, plant disease, insect plagues, floods and earthquakes. A prolonged drought is behind the recent warning of potential famine in Somalia by the World Food Programme.
The human causes of famine include extreme poverty, war, deliberate crop destruction and the inefficient distribution of food. South Sudan’s predicament falls square under this category. There have been no major droughts, flooding or other natural catastrophe reported. Instead a three year conflict that has engulfed the country, combined with high food prices, economic disruption and low agricultural production has resulted in UN and the government of South Sudan declaring a famine in the country.
According to the head of the World Food Programme, the avoidable conflict between the main political protagonists is solely to blame. Years of conflict have created a situation in which many women, children and the elderly are suffering needlessly and have no access to food or water.
High food prices, economic disruption and low agricultural production have resulted in the large areas becoming “food insecure”. The situation could not have come at a more difficult time. Years of conflict have crippled the economy and hammered the value of its currency. Severe inflation has seen the value of its currency plummet 800% in the past year alone. This has made food unaffordable for many families.
Despite the deteriorating situation the government of South Sudan has been using its limited resources to buy weapons, increase the number of states, pay military wages and wage war on civilians.
Conflict sows seeds of hunger
Significant progress in reducing global hunger has been achieved over the past 30 years. But the impact of conflict on food production and citizens ability to feed themselves is often underestimated. This was highlighted in a study that found that"
“civil wars and conflicts are detrimental to food security, but the negative effects are more severe for countries unable to make available for their citizens the minimum dietary energy requirement under which a country is qualified for food aid”
This is true of South Sudan, which can feed itself in peace time. Just six months ago, many parts of the country were bustling with agricultural activity, producing enough food for the local populations.
The medium sized town of Yei is a good example. Locals report an inability to cultivate their land since the recent escalation of fighting. A town once seen as a place where coffee bean production was on the rise is now a place where farmers no longer venture out.
It’s also likely that Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia, could declare a famine in the next few months. It’s no coincidence that those countries are also embroiled in widespread or localised armed conflict.
More than 100,000 people in two counties of Unity state are experiencing famine. This number could rise as an additional one million South Sudanese are on the brink of starvation. Central Equatoria state, traditionally South Sudan’s breadbasket, has been hit by ethnically targeted killings that have disrupted agricultural production.
Between 40%-50% of South Sudan’s population are expected to be severely food insecure and at risk of death in the coming months. Over 250,000 children are severely malnourished according to UNICEF and these are number where UNICEF has access to.
Yet the government does not seem to want to address the underlying causes of the famine. In fact it’s unclear what its overall plan is.
It is relocating by air internally displaced people through Juba into Malakal. The Dinka-controlled government’s strategy is not entirely clear. But some of my informants claim that the objective is to rid the capital of rival ethnic groups that could pose a direct threat to the seat of government in Juba.
Adding to this, the new Special Representative for South Sudan has raised concerns over some 20,000 internally displaced people on the West bank of the Nile in the Upper Nile region as a “real problem.” These fleeing civilians are victims of government efforts to consolidate power centrally and push certain ethnic groups who are not aligned to the government away from the centre.
Food aid restricted
The UN has repeatedly warned that government forces are blocking the delivery of food aid to affected areas.
South Sudan’s government wouldn’t be the first to have done this. In 2012 the Rohingya in Myanmar who were left to starve amidst sectarian violence with local Buddhist communities. In 2011 it was Sudan starving its people in the Nuba mountain region. More recently in Syria the government was allegedly targeting bakeries, hitting civilians waiting to buy food.
According to the Geneva Convention treaty on non-international armed conflicts a government can legally restrict food access for a short-term period if it is militarily necessary. This is a very narrow exception. It cannot and should not be used to punish civilians for their affiliation to the conflict and it cannot be used on a biased basis. And such restrictions must not result in starvation of the civilians.
Famine and political unrest
The situation in South Sudan is likely to get worse. The ongoing conflict is likely to escalate as the number of smaller armed groups rises on the back of more localised self-militias being set up. In the light of this government military action will escalate.
This new dimension in South Sudan’s conflict increases in the chances of further political turmoil and further narrows the window of peace for the world’s youngest nation.