In South Sudan, famine threat still looms
“We thought the world had forgotten about us” is one of the most common refrains that Deepmala Mahla, Mercy Corps’ country director for South Sudan, hears when she arrives in a new village.
While South Sudan is no longer technically experiencing famine, the reality on the ground remains dire. An estimated 6 million people — more than half the population — are at risk, and 1.7 million people require immediate assistance.
“The situation has deteriorated. There are more areas where people are food insecure. ... It has not only deteriorated, but it’s getting worse faster than we expected.” —Deepmala Mahla, South Sudan country director
Millions of people across the country do not know where their next meal will come from. Months after the world became aware of the hunger crisis when the UN declared famine, Deepmala and her team still encounter desperate villages that have not received aid. They work quickly to identify and meet families’ needs before circumstances deteriorate further.
Their first priority is getting food to those who need it most: children. More than 1.1 million children in South Sudan are reported to be facing acute malnourishment, with nearly 276,000 severely malnourished and at imminent risk of death.
Mercy Corps has begun a school feeding program that offers warm meals at school lunches, ensuring that students get at least one meal a day and that they can continue their educations. More than 5,000 students have received meals so far this year.
Response to these efforts has been enthusiastic, increasing school attendance and parental involvement. Parents help wash dishes after meals and even volunteer to clean the school latrines. One community offered a small piece of land to set up a demonstration garden.
“The parents are telling us that their kids are healthier because the school provides nutritious food,” Mahla says. “They reported that the children are doing better at home and also doing more outdoor activities.”
In addition to immediate food needs, Deepmala and her team provide villagers with items like seeds and fishing kits that will empower the villagers to grow their own food and build long-term resilience to hunger. So far this year, Mercy Corps has distributed 2,800 fishing kits, 5,791 crop kits, and 3,200 vegetable kits.
“This helps people manage some food for themselves and maybe sell some,” Mahla says. “It helps the people and the local market, provides an education about gardening, and also there’s the nutrition component.”
“We have to give them something with which they can start rebuilding their lives so that the help that we are extending to them is not just for today but also for the coming days.”
While food is the most critical need, stopping the spread of disease is a crucial challenge. South Sudan is in the middle of a prolonged, widespread cholera outbreak, with more than 13,000 cases reported this year.
“Usually between starvation and death comes disease,” Mahla says. The key to prevention is clean water and good hygiene practices, which is why Mercy Corps provides services like water purification, well digging, and latrine construction.
With conditions worsening every day, many more vulnerable families in South Sudan need help now. Even without a formal famine declaration, as many as 45,000 people still experience famine-like conditions. Access to food and clean water will keep them alive today so we can continue our efforts to build them a stronger tomorrow.
“Donors should feel extremely proud because they have definitely saved lives in a situation where millions are at risk,” Mahla says. “It is so crucial at this point. It’s the time when the crisis is bigger than ever.”