- - Wednesday, March 29, 2017

JUBA, South Sudan — Angelina Lado, a 45-year-old mother of five, has been staving off hunger since the army ransacked, then burned down, her hometown of Yei near the Ugandan border late last summer in their search for rebel fighters in the country’s three-year civil war.

She essentially depends on luck to eat.

“Me and [my] children live on wild fruits and grains, if we are lucky,” she said as she was registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where she hoped to become a refugee eligible to receive food and other benefits. “We go to bed with empty stomachs. Life has been too hard to me and my children.”

Mrs. Lado is among around 4,000 South Sudanese who flee south to Uganda every day in search of food and security amid what the international officials and aid groups warn is a humanitarian crisis that is becoming one of the globe’s worst threat of famine in 70 years. After the fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels under his former vice president, Riek Machar, flared up in July, the government has devoted more resources to the war effort than to protecting the civilian population. The incessant fighting, meanwhile, has displaced farmers and ruined harvests.

“The long-term effects of the conflict, coupled with high food prices, economic crises, low agriculture production and depleted livelihood options are all contributing to the deterioration of food security situation,” said Isaiah Chol Aruai, the chairman of South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics.

Around 100,000 people in South Sudan — the world’s youngest country, after it broke away from Sudan in 2011 — are now dying of starvation, according to the U.N. Another 1 million people are on the brink of extreme hunger, while 2.9 million face a food crisis that could become a famine. More than 7.5 million South Sudanese need food assistance today, a fivefold increase compared to last year, the U.N. said.

South Sudan is not alone. Conflict and Islamist guerrilla warfare have raised the specter of famine in Yemen, Somalia and parts of Nigeria as well, putting an estimated 16 million people at risk of dying in the coming months.

“We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations,” Stephen O’Brien, the U.N. humanitarian chief, told the U.N. Security Council after a visit this month to Somalia and South Sudan.

Preventing famine in South Sudan and the other affected countries requires at least $4.4 billion by the end of March, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month. But the world body has received only 10 percent of the necessary funds.

Famine already has been declared in two counties of South Sudan, and 1 million people there are on the brink of dying from a lack of food, U.N. officials have said. Somalia has declared a state of emergency over drought, and 2.9 million of its people face a food crisis that could become a famine, according to the U.N. In northeastern Nigeria, severe malnutrition is widespread in areas affected by violence from Boko Haram extremists.

The scramble to head off a famine also comes as President Trump has proposed cuts in next year’s U.S. foreign aid budget, meaning the world’s biggest donor of emergency aid may be drawing back just as aid officials seek the resources to tackle the multiple crises.

Working in a war zone

Access to those afflicted has been a problem: Many of the areas are remote, and humanitarian agencies are trying to feed the hungry in what is still an active war zone. On Sunday six aid workers were killed in South Sudan in an ambush on the road that leads to the current capital of Juba. At least 12 aid workers have now been killed in 2017 — and some 79 since the fighting first broke out in 2013.

Making matters worse, the U.N. also reportedly concluded in a confidential report that President Kiir is diverting around half of his country’s oil revenues to financing his soldiers and munitions for the civil war. He dismissed the allegations.

Rights advocates say the situation on the ground in South Sudan is worsening by the day.

“It is clear that the people of South Sudan are now in more danger than ever,” said Daniel Juol, a human rights lawyer in Uganda who has been working with South Sudanese refugees. “Thousands — if not millions — are going to die unless something is done to stop hunger on time. What is clear is that this catastrophe is caused by man due to greed for power.”

Deng Kiir Akok, a popular South Sudanese blogger, said the government should also postpone plans to build a $10 billion new capital in Ramciel in the center of the country, a location that proponents said is in neutral territory between the two sides of the civil war that has killed tens of thousands. The project has languished due to lack of funds. But Mr. Kiir has nonetheless still devoted resources to it. Morocco recently provided $5 million for a study for the project.

“South Sudan should first think of feeding its starving citizens and then come back later for this,” said Mr. Akok. “If Ramciel is not built this year, no one will die.”

Around 3.4 million have been displaced in the fighting, according to the U.N., while nearly 200,000 have fled the country this year. A cholera outbreak that began in June is now spreading too, international officials say.

In Jongeli State in eastern South Sudan, where fighting in the civil war has been intense, more than 105,000 people face starvation, said Deng Ajak, a local relief commissioner.

“We are concerned about the situation in those areas and are planning to send an assessment team to determine the exact needs,” the commissioner said. “Thereafter we can deliver food assistance.”

The U.N. is repositioning food closer to districts where famine is likely to hit because roads would be impassable during the rainy season, he added.

Duk Panyang County Commissioner Peter Latjor Chuol said that fighting in neighboring Bieth State in recent months has displaced more than 5,600 people who arrived in his region in urgent need of food and water. “My people in the county are hungry,” Mr. Chuol said. Displaced refugees “are now in my county, making the situation worse.”

He added that the situation could turn into a “disaster” if no humanitarian assistance arrives before the rainy season starts in May.

The United Nations Population Fund, known as UNFPA, is increasingly concerned about pregnant women as their food supplies are cut short: Among those who face famine are 33,000 pregnant women, and as many as 253,000 women of childbearing age face death by hunger.

“In a country that struggles with one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates, severe hunger due to famine could increase risks during pregnancy and childbirth,” said UNFPA Country Representative Esperance Fundira. “With increases in premature or low-birth-weight babies and severe postpartum bleeding, the process of giving life becomes even more likely to result in death.”

Ms. Fundira also worried that famine could worsen already existing conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence.

“In the South Sudanese conflict, women and girls are raped, forced into marriage and prostitution to survive,” she said. “Single women, female-headed households, adolescent girls, elderly women, women with disabilities and children are at particular risk.”

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