Sudan Conflict Exacerbates Food Crisis

Fellows Spring 2012

By Andrew Green

May 08, 2012

Also published at The Interdependent

There's no soda water in the Wau market. It's an easy thing to overlook in the bustling heart of this western South Sudanese town, since the basics are still in abundance: 25-kilogram bags of ground maize, blue-and-yellow tubs of condensed milk, piles of overripe tomatoes.

Still, the missing soda water nags at some of the vendors. Mohamed Adress, one of the shop owners, tells me that when the rains come later this month, it could be "almost everything" that goes missing. Most of the food for sale here has made it through a tenuous border crossing from Sudan or came up by road from Uganda, covering more than 1,000 miles. That fragile supply chain, which keeps Wau's market stocked, often breaks down, especially when poor weather turns the country's unpaved roads into mud for up to six months of the year. Most of Wau's itinerant farmers don't produce enough to live on. Instead, like much of the country, they turn to the market to shore up their supplies when they can afford to.

The combination of poor road infrastructure and low cultivation are part of an accumulation of problems that could leave as much as half of South Sudan's population without enough to eat, says Mtendere Mphatso, a food security coordinator for the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Mphatso's organization and the UN World Food Program (WFP) together predict that 4.7 million people in South Sudan will face food shortages this year. At least 1 million of those will experience severe food insecurity and possible malnutrition. In announcing the figures in February, FAO put out a call for $160 million to provide emergency food assistance to at least the 2.7 million most vulnerable South Sudanese.

Although Mphatso said the situation in South Sudan is not a famine, he compared it to Somalia, where tens of thousands of people died last year from lack of access to food. "This problem is concerning not just the next four or five months of the rainy season." he said. "We're challenged with the fact that this may become a perpetual problem."

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Added to the usual pressures this year has been a fast-escalating conflict with Sudan, the northern neighbor this country split from just months ago. The conflict stems from disputes between the two Sudans about oil production and exports over a yet to be demarcated border that leaves resource-rich regions in limbo. Even before South Sudan's independence last July, there were reports that Sudan was dropping bombs along the disputed border, hoping to stake a claim. The bombings carried over into 2012, forcing thousands to flee. Then, in mid-April, South Sudan stormed the Heglig region, claiming the north was using it as a staging ground for attacks. Under widespread international criticism, the south ultimately pulled its troops out of Heglig after less than two weeks.

But war rhetoric between the leaders of the two countries has escalated since the Heglig invasion, and northern attacks on the south have continued. South Sudan's President Salva Kiir told reporters that he believed the north had "declared war" after a recent bombing shortly after the south removed its forces from Heglig. If he's right, and the recent violence signals a renewal of the decades-long war between the two countries, the current mass of refugees could be joined by hundreds of thousands more. The ongoing fighting between Sudan and South Sudan also makes trade between the countries shaky, robbing the south of a potential supplier.

Those refugees would be added to more than 2.5 million people who have returned to South Sudan, eager to come back to the new nation they fled decades ago during Sudan's civil war. Among both those groups, tens of thousands lack the capacity to feed themselves.

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Faced with a daunting humanitarian crisis year after year, the new South Sudan was born into a cycle of food insecurity that has obliged the international community to constantly deliver emergency food assistance. Mphatso argues that while this saves lives in the immediate term, it also feeds the cycle of need. Donors and the government focus on short-term relief without simultaneously considering long-term interventions. With the right investments now, some people won't need to go hungry again. Mphatso argues for programs that would train local growers in farming techniques, provide them with access to tractors and water and encourage them to cultivate larger areas of land.

"We should be providing these kind of integrated responses to these problems by assuring that we are adequately funding even those programs"¦that could actually be reducing the humanitarian caseloads in the long run," he says. FAO and other donors have begun implementing similar programs in some regions, but he says they haven't received the funding to do so on the scale required.

Mphatso's strategy could work to relieve the long-term need for food assistance in some of the country's insecure areas, like Wau. For many residents, the problems created by bad roads could be overcome by increased cultivation. In other areas of the country, however, getting people enough to eat will require more than just teaching them to grow more food.

Jonglei, for example, is the largest of South Sudan's 10 states, stretching across much of the northeastern part of the country. For decades, the region has been plagued by cattle raiding. Over the past few months, though, the raids have become increasingly violent, with different armed groups stealing cattle, kidnapping children and murdering adults who get in the way. The violence has displaced an estimated 140,000 people.

Those who flee become part of the food insecurity tally WFP-FAO is keeping. And so have the people who have stayed in the villages, afraid to cultivate land too far from their homes and consequently not producing enough to feed themselves. "People are abandoning agriculture for safety," Deng Manassaeh Mac, the director of the faculty of agriculture at the John Garang Memorial University, told me.

If the government could guarantee security in the region, Mac believes that Sudan's food security issues would also dramatically improve. Mac's university, located in Bor, the capital of Jonglei, conducts training programs with government officials, community leaders and agricultural students about modern farming techniques. He predicts that with some investments in mechanization and some experimentation with different crops, South Sudan will soon be in a position to actually start exporting food in a "matter of a few years."

Even in the absence of blanket security across all regions of South Sudan"”something that may take years to achieve"”outreach and training programs could still help ease the cycle of food dependence. If the newly trained agriculturalists can boost cultivation near relatively stable areas like Wau, it will mean international organizations and the South Sudanese government can spend less on emergency food delivery, potentially freeing up funds to focus on curbing ethnic violence, integrating returnees and addressing other issues that contribute to the country's food shortages.

And while it won't guarantee that Wau's markets will always be stocked with soda water, it will go a long way toward assuring the people that there will at least have enough to eat when the rains come.

That, of course, is one of the better possible outcomes. The reality is that developing food security is a fragile process, easily undercut. A poor growing season this year, for instance, would add hundreds of thousands to the ranks of the food insecure next year and necessitate even more money for emergency food assistance. A renewed war with the north would be even more devastating.

With the rains coming, however, the most WFP and other programs can do now is to stockpile as much food as possible and hope South Sudan rides out this year's storms.

Andrew Green is reporting from South Sudan on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.