May 23, 2014 at 1:17 pm

South Sudan famine risk remains despite $600M pledge

Nairobi, Kenya — The good news for hundreds of thousands of hungry South Sudan residents is that international donors this week pledged an additional $600 million to help a country upended by conflict. The bad news is that perilous security and flooded roads mean famine remains a real possibility.

Three days after international donors pledged $606 million — bringing pledges for the year to $1.2 billion — a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Program said Friday that despite a cease-fire signed between the government and rebel fighters this month, WFP hasn’t yet seen any improvements in access for hard-to-reach areas.

Informal road blocks where armed men demand bribes have impeded food deliveries. Insecurity has also prevented food deliveries by river barge. And seasonal rains now under way have closed off many of the country’s bad dirt roads.

“A serious risk of famine remains and we are very concerned about the access to the areas where we know that up to three quarters of the population are in urgent need of food,” said Challiss McDonough, a WFP spokeswoman.

Because the window to deliver food aid before the rains really set in has closed, food and other aid deliveries now must be done by air, which cost six or seven times as much as road distributions.

More than 1 million South Sudan residents have fled their homes because of the fighting that broke out in December. Some 1.3 million people are in a hunger emergency, one step below famine. South Sudan, which broke away from Sudan in 2011, is one of the world’s poorest countries.

Fred McCray, the response manager for the U.S. aid group World Vision in South Sudan, called the new $600 million pledge — including $290 million from the U.S. and $101 million from the U.K. — extremely welcome and desperately needed. He also said that peace seems to be prevailing after this month’s cease-fire deal. But the need to use air transport to move food creates other problems.

“This is obviously more expensive than trucking food, and even those aircraft will not be able to reach some airports that are little more than dirt strips that shut down when the rains come,” McCray said.

WFP is hiring about 10 more aircraft to make additional air drops, but McDonough noted that there are only so many aircraft in the world equipped to drop payloads of food while continuing to fly.

“And we’re going to hire almost all of them,” she said. “It’s been a number of years since we’ve had to do airdrops at this scale anywhere in the world.”

Emma Jane Drew, the humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam, said few aid groups are working in the northern state of Unity, where she called the situation dire. WFP has not been able to reach two counties in Unity, where South Sudan’s most severe hunger crisis is.

“It’s basically almost 100 percent displacement in the entire state. So wherever you have conflict you also inevitably have food insecurity itself,” she said. “Markets have been destroyed. The supply pipeline has been destroyed, so people aren’t going to be able to access the food or even the non-food items.”

The latest menace to hit South Sudan is cholera, which Drew said has an extremely high mortality rate that gives aid workers only a small window of opportunity to respond.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders said Friday that more than 315 cholera cases have been recorded since May 15 and the U.N. says at least 13 people have died. The disease is proliferating in part because of the cramped and dirty environment seen in U.N. camps for tens of thousands of people seeking shelter from the violence.