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Conflict drags South Sudan into a food crisis verging on catastrophic

Women boil water as the sun rises over a camp for displaced people. Since mid-December 2013, more than 700,000 people have been displaced within South Sudan by violence and another 226,000 have fled into neighboring countries. Photo: Mackenzie Knowles Coursin/Oxfam

South Sudan, which became the world’s newest nation in 2011 with high hopes for the future of its people, is now in the grip of a conflict-triggered food crisis that could plunge the country into catastrophe.

In late 2013, less than three years after South Sudan declared its independence, fighting broke out between the government and opposition forces with consequences that have brought severe hardship to countless people. More than a million have been forced from their homes, and more than 270,000 have fled to neighboring countries. As many as seven million people are now at risk of severe food insecurity, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.

“How many lives have to be lost before the parties to the conflict silence their guns and donors respond with more resources?” asked Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director.  “We either act now or face an even larger human catastrophe in the weeks and months to come.”

The fighting erupted as farmers were in the middle of harvesting their crops, causing many of them to flee and abandon what they had stocked and would need in the months ahead. Now, with the rainy season here and a new crop cycle ready to begin, many farmers are unable to plant:  Some have had their farm equipment stolen or destroyed, there is limited seed availability, and many families who have fled have nowhere to sow.

The conflict has also destroyed local markets in some areas, forcing businesses to shut down and discouraging traders from bringing in new goods. With markets in disarray and preparations for planting impossible, families can neither buy what they need nor grow it in the coming months.

“The effects of the conflict are significant,” said UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos in a recent call to action. “Millions of people have been affected, cities have been destroyed, the economy has collapsed and food production has been devastated.”

Aid groups are in a race against time. The rain has arrived in the southern part of the country and is steadily moving north, threatening countless families who live in flood-prone areas, including many who have been displaced along the Nile and Sobat rivers. Funding shortfalls are preventing humanitarian aid from reaching those who desperately need it.

“We need to learn from the mistakes of the past—not repeat them,” said Oxfam’s Byanyima. “Mass death needs not be inevitable for South Sudan. But we can’t trust that to hope and good luck. We need action.”

Oxfam has joined 21 other aid and development organizations in calling for the Government of South Sudan and parties to the conflict to agree immediately to a ceasefire and an expansion of food assistance and nutrition interventions.

Oxfam is also rushing food and clean water to crowded makeshift camps, and working to prevent disease outbreaks. Help us protect lives in South Sudan.

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