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Editor's note: This article was originally published September 12, 2014; it was updated May 19, 2018 to reflect the latest information.
South Sudan should be a country full of hope more than six years after gaining independence. Instead, it’s now in the grip of a massive humanitarian crisis.
Political conflict, compounded by economic woes and drought, has caused massive displacement, raging violence and dire food shortages. Seven million people — more than 60 percent of the population — are in need of aid and at risk of going hungry by June 2018.
Of these, more than 2.3 million people are facing emergency levels of food insecurity.
Due to these ongoing issues, areas of South Sudan were experiencing famine in early 2017. In 2018, famine has not been officially declared, but without consistent humanitarian access and funding, a declaration later this year is likely. The latest report from Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), the food security scale that identifies the severity of food shortages, offers a stark outlook: This will be the toughest year yet for South Sudan in terms of food security.
The people of this young country need our help, and among the world’s other emergencies, we must not forget them. We are working on the ground to reach families who are struggling to survive in South Sudan — but our lifesaving work starts with you.
Learn more about this complex crisis and get the latest on the situation in South Sudan below. Plus, find out how you can help.
Follow @mercycorps on Twitter for regular updates on the crisis in South Sudan.
When did the crisis start?
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, but the hard-won celebration was short-lived. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling political party that originally led the way for independence, is now divided and fighting for power.
In December 2013, political infighting erupted into violence in the streets of the capital, Juba, after South Sudan’s president accused his vice president of an attempted coup. Fighting between the two factions of government forces loyal to each soon moved to Bor, and then to Bentiu.
PHOTO: Dominic Nahr for Mercy Corps
Violence spread across the young nation like wildfire, displacing 413,000 civilians in just the first month of conflict. Tens of thousands of civilians rushed to seek refuge in U.N. bases that were subsequently turned into makeshift displacement camps.
The fighting has continued, becoming an increasingly brutal civil war and affecting the entire country.
What's going on now?
A handful of peace agreements have been signed over the course of the war — the most recent in August 2015 — but they have been repeatedly violated. The situation in South Sudan remains highly unstable and is prone to outbreaks of violence. This year new areas of the south of the country have become embroiled in the conflict, and lands that were once known as the breadbasket of South Sudan are not producing as much food as a result.
This year's post-harvest season reflects the dire situation. In January 2018, there was a 40 percent increase in the number of people facing severe food insecurity compared to the same time last year.
On top of these attacks and the lack of food, the country's economy is in crisis — the South Sudanese pound has declined in value, and the cost of goods and services has skyrocketed. At one point the inflation rate reached 835 percent, the highest in the world at the time.
In early 2017, a famine was declared in parts of South Sudan, leaving 100,000 people on the verge of starvation. While famine is no longer declared as of February 2018, an estimated 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
What's happening to people in South Sudan?
Since the conflict began, 1 in 3 people in South Sudan have been displaced. More than 4 million citizens have been forced to flee their homes. Over 2.4 million people have escaped to neighboring countries in search of safety, and more than 1.7 million are trapped inside the warring nation. South Sudan is now the third-most fled country in the world, behind Syria and Afghanistan.
Those who’ve run have lost loved ones and their homes, their land and their livelihoods. Violence toward civilians has been widespread, including targeted attacks, gender-based violence, kidnappings and murders. Burning and pillaging of homes and livestock is rampant.
And assaults on aid convoys and looting of supplies have become increasingly common, making it difficult — and dangerous — to reach in-need families with the support they need to survive.
Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of young ones are facing an uncertain future — according to UNICEF, 75 percent of the country’s children are out of school. Find out how we get kids to class during conflict ▸
PHOTO: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps
"I worry about my children. I don't know when this war will stop," says Mary. "There is no good news. There is only talk of fighting and attacks. The children have no food to eat. The children have no school to go to. Our children are becoming soldiers."
Across the country, children can't learn, people can’t work, farmers can’t plant — all they can do is hope to survive until there is an end to the vicious fighting.
How bad is the food crisis?
A massive humanitarian effort helped prevent widespread starvation in 2014, but the situation in South Sudan is desperate again. After famine ravaged parts of South Sudan last year, people are still dying of hunger. Ongoing violence continues to keep people from their homes, damage markets and disrupt planting, all of which keeps them from getting the food they need to survive.
In January 2018, 5.3 million people were already at risk of going hungry and, without humanitarian support, that number could increase to more than 7 million in the coming months. If it does, it would be the highest number of people ever to face food insecurity in South Sudan.
The upcoming lean season, the period between May and July when stores from the previous harvest are running low but the next is not yet ready, will be particularly threatening for vulnerable families. Learn about our response to the food crisis ▸
What are the effects of hunger in South Sudan?
Hunger anywhere can have long-term, debilitating consequences, but it can be particularly threatening during a complex crisis like the one in South Sudan.
When people go hungry, they have trouble staying healthy and become more vulnerable to dangerous diseases, which is a weakness people sheltering in makeshift camps and communities can’t afford. Their bodies are also not as strong or productive as they could be, which makes it difficult for them to work, find food and keep their families safe at a time when they urgently need the strength to do so.
Children’s development is also seriously impacted by hunger. Without proper nutrition, they don’t hit critical developmental milestones, which can permanently inhibit their ability to learn and function for the rest of their lives. Hungry children don’t learn as well, and they are also at a higher risk of disease. According to UNICEF, more than 1 million children in South Sudan are acutely malnourished, and 1 in 4 are stunted.
Why did the humanitarian situation deteriorate so quickly?
South Sudan was once a semi-independent region in Sudan, only recently gaining independence as a country in 2011, after a brutal civil war that lasted more than 25 years. The conflict in December 2013 reopened deeply-rooted political and ethnic tensions that hadn't yet been reconciled in the young country — and those divisions have continued to fuel ongoing clashes.
After those decades of conflict, South Sudan was and still is one of the least-developed countries in the world, which has further complicated the situation.
The larger cities in South Sudan had experienced some development, but the majority of the nation is rural. Even before the crisis, more than half of its citizens lived in absolute poverty, were dependent on subsistence agriculture and suffered from malnourishment.
PHOTO: Dominic Nahr for Mercy Corps
"I am afraid we have lost our future and everything we worked so hard for to win our independence," says Chudier from the displacement camp where she's seeking safety. "We worked hard to build a life here [in South Sudan] and have beds to sleep on, blankets and plates to eat off. Now it is all gone.”
“I just want peace and to be able to take my family home, so they can have a normal life," she continues. "I spent most of my life as a refugee, I don’t want my children to grow up like I did.” Hear from more families on what they've lost in the war ▸
Because the economy was already fragile before fighting began, people like Chudier have very few resources to help them survive the long-term conflict and displacement they're now faced with.
Plus, at this point in the war, many people have had to flee for safety more than once. Repeated displacement makes it impossible for people to regain any sort of stability — if they do manage to make progress by planting crops, purchasing animals or rebuilding livelihoods in their places of refuge, they must quickly abandon them if the fighting forces another escape.
South Sudan also has very little formal infrastructure — roads, buses, buildings — which makes it difficult to transport food and supplies. Many towns and villages become inaccessible during the annual rainy season due to closed airstrips, washed out roads or lack of roads altogether, sometimes limiting any delivery of humanitarian aid to the isolated areas that need it most.
These logistical constraints, combined with the violent context, make reaching people with the humanitarian support they desperately need incredibly challenging and risky. Last year South Sudan became the most dangerous place in the world to be an aid worker.
Where have people fled to?
More than 2.4 million people have crossed into neighboring countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, resulting in Africa’s largest refugee crisis. Inside South Sudan, more than 1.7 million people are displaced.
PHOTO: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps
The majority of displaced families live outside the camps, wherever they can find safe shelter — often in small villages that offer some security, tucked away from the main areas of fighting. For some living in the most violent areas, there is no other choice but to flee into the bush with what little they can carry with them.
How are people surviving outside of camps?
Many families who've fled their homes have had to move multiple times to escape the spreading violence.
Some run into the bush, with their children on their backs and little or nothing else. In the bush, there is often nothing to eat but wild plants like grass, roots and water lilies. But some people would rather face the risk of starving than endure the violence that is rampant in towns and villages.
For others, finding shelter in an isolated, small village, removed from the violence, is the best they can hope for. Those villages offer some sense of safety, but there is little in the way of food or supplies, and always the risk that fighting will come and families will have to flee yet again.
Small food rations given out by aid organizations help somewhat, but escalating attacks on aid convoys and the annual rainy season make deliveries difficult and infrequent — not enough to count on.
Mercy Corps is providing seeds and tools and helping to restart markets in small villages so food can be grown and accessed by families sheltering in rural areas.
Photo: Dominic Nahr for Mercy Corps
Why is there so little food to harvest?
South Sudan has agricultural potential, but due to poor infrastructure and lack of technology, growing enough food to feed everyone in the young nation has never been easy. After decades of struggle, food security was starting to improve before the current conflict began. In 2013, harvests of staple crops like millet, maize, and sorghum were up 20 percent (FAO).
Unfortunately, the crisis in South Sudan has disrupted farming and any hard-earned improvements have been lost. Because of the fighting, people who would normally grow crops have been far away from their land, running and hiding from violence — unable to plant. Conflict has also reached the Equatorias, the area considered the breadbasket of South Sudan, which is exacerbating the food shortage.
As conflict continues, many families are still far from home and unable to plant seeds, prepare land or harvest their crops. About half of all crops are in violence-ridden areas.
Can people buy more food?
Because of what's happening in South Sudan — violence, instability, recurring displacement — food stores are running out and many markets are empty. Traders are too worried about possible attacks to transport food supplies from safer areas.
What little food is available has soared in price, and most displaced families have no money to buy any goods. In Juba earlier this year, the retail price of sorghum, a staple grain, was 600 percent higher than it was in 2015.
What is life like in camps?
While there may be relative safety in the six U.N. camps, the conditions there are dire.
The bases were not designed to host this many people for so long. Proper sanitation, hygiene and waste disposal are inadequate in such crowded conditions, and heavy seasonal rains flood many of the camps, making things even worse.
In some camps, flooding has collapsed newly-built latrines, forcing people to walk through knee-high water that is contaminated with sewage. There have been reports of mothers sleeping standing up, holding their children, because there is nowhere clean to rest. Read our Q+A: How to survive in Bentiu ▸
What about disease?
Beyond making everyday activities like sleeping and preparing food extremely difficult, heavy rains and standing water also increase the risk of disease.
PHOTO: Dominic Nahr for Mercy Corps
Communicable and waterborne diseases like cholera and malaria spread quickly in these conditions. The risks are also high for other infections caused by contaminated water, malnutrition and weakened immune systems. Children are hungry and thirsty. If they get desperate, they may end up drinking dirty water that could give them an infection. For a young child, an infection can lead to weight loss, severe dehydration and even death. More than 13,000 cases of cholera were reported in 2017 alone.
What are the most urgent needs in the camps?
Displaced families receive some food, but there are urgent needs for additional food and disease prevention through better sanitation and access to clean water.
How do we help people in camps stay healthy?
To help prevent outbreaks, better sanitation and clean water are critical. In and around the Bentiu U.N. base, in the capital of Unity State, we are helping by building latrines and hand-washing stations, teaching proper hygiene and providing clean water, helping more than 50,000 displaced people.
Building latrines and teaching proper hygiene and waste disposal are the best ways to ensure that water sources stay clean for people to drink, cook and bathe. Read more about our hygiene response ▸
Is disease affecting people outside camps?
Yes. Already in 2018, outbreaks of measles, meningitis and Rift Valley fever, a viral zoonotic disease, have been reported in areas across the country and have resulted in deaths.
Nationwide, disease outbreaks are reaching new areas and lasting longer. The country suffered a protracted, widespread cholera outbreak between June 2016 and February 2018, with more than 20,000 suspected cases and at least 436 deaths. It was the longest cholera outbreak in South Sudan’s history.
Additionally, medical care to cope with these risks is increasingly out of reach. Medicine is in short supply, and health workers and medical centers have been routinely targeted. Only around 20 percent of South Sudan’s health facilities are fully operational.
Who is most affected by the crisis?
Women and girls make up the majority of the displaced population and are disproportionately impacted by the conflict in South Sudan. Over half the population of the United Nations’ displacement sites is made up of women and girls, and 86 percent of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are women and children.
PHOTO: Jennifer Huxta for Mercy Corps
Sexual violence is also pervasive. Almost half of women and girls have reported experiencing abuse — even while most incidences of violence go unreported.
In addition, women and girls continue to bear the burden of family caretaking even during crisis. In the face of heightened violence, recurring displacement and loss of livelihoods, daily tasks like collecting water and firewood can make them targets for attack.
What will happen if the fighting continues?
Without peace and support, the crisis in South Sudan will continue to deteriorate. Families will remain in hiding away from their homes and their land, unable to plant, and the economy will decline further.
The number of people at risk of hunger will increase. Families will die from starvation, malnutrition and disease.
Is South Sudan getting enough assistance?
The short answer: no.
The UN appealed for $1.64 billion to assist 7.6 million people in need in 2017. Only 73 percent of the budget was funded.
In 2018, the UN is appealing for $1.5 billion to support refugees fleeing the South Sudan crisis and for $1.7 billion for people within the country. Their request must be fully funded in order to help all 7 million people in need.
Many humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, are partnering with the U.N., using both private contributions and funding from the international community, to address the urgent needs of innocent people in South Sudan.
There are many crises we are working to address, but this young and vulnerable country needs more help to avoid further catastrophe and human suffering.
PHOTO: Dominic Nahr for Mercy Corps
"Many people here in our community have been displaced," says Albino. "We were forced to run from here and some of us returned to nothing."
How can we help?
Mercy Corps is working to provide desperately-needed latrines, showers, hand-washing stations and clean water to help people survive and prevent the spread of diseases like cholera in camps and communities.
In the small villages where many people are sheltering, we have rehabilitated living spaces, provided seeds, tools and training so people can grow food wherever they are living, and implemented cash-for-work programs to give vulnerable families some money to purchase supplies.
We're also distributing emergency funds to help traders and families access goods in hard-hit areas of the country. And our emergency education program trains teachers, repairs schools and provides school supplies and free meals so children can continue learning despite this crisis. In one refugee settlement in Uganda, we're providing cash aid that will allow refugees to buy what they need most while also stimulating the local economy.