Working on the Frontlines of Famine in South Sudan

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Financial Inclusion

Working on the Frontlines of Famine in South Sudan

Photo Credit: Cassandra Nelson/ Mercy Corps

Deepmala Mahla has seen a lot in 15 years of working in international aid. But nothing is like current day South Sudan.

“I have never seen anything more saddening, more complex, and more rapidly deteriorating than South Sudan,” says Mahla.

Mahla—the head of Mercy Corps’ team in South Sudan—sat down with KBOO reporter Sam Bowman to discuss the situation in South Sudan and Mercy Corps’ response efforts.

The escalating conflict in South Sudan has driven more than 1 million children out of the country, the United Nations announced earlier this week. Children make up 62 percent of the nearly 2 million people who have fled to neighboring countries since the civil war began. More than 75,000 children have fled South Sudan unaccompanied or separated from their families. Another million children are displaced within the country. Nearly three-quarters of the children in South Sudan are not in school—the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world.  

South Sudan’s adults flee with only their children on their backs. Most have nothing to restart their lives. They go to the swamps because they think they will be safer there—which makes it more difficult to provide aid.

South Sudan’s war has caused widespread famine. At least 100,000 people are starving in South Sudan. Another 1 million people are at risk of starvation. People have resorted to eating lily roots and leaves—basically anything that might help curb hunger.

“The hunger situation is drastic and unprecedented across history in all periods—ever,” Mahla says. “Half of the country does not know where its next meal is coming from. That’s serious.”

Mercy Corps has worked in South Sudan since 1985. Its team has been working around-the-clock to provide emergency food, supplies, and support to communities in dire need of assistance.

In addition to food aid, Mercy Corps provides communities with seeds and tools to grow food for themselves. The seeds include vegetable varieties that have a shorter growth cycle, so people can reap the benefits faster.

South Sudan has just 60 miles of paved road. In the rainy season, more than half of the population cannot be reached. Many communities can only be reached by air, and even then during the rainy season some airstrips cannot be used to land. In some circumstances, the team resorts to using a helicopter, which is expensive and can't carry much.

“Reaching people is difficult,” Mahla says. “I have never seen more complicated logistics.”

South Sudan is the most dangerous country for aid workers in the world. At least 79 aid workers have been killed in South Sudan since December 2013. Building strong relations with the community is essential to being able to successfully distribute aid—but sometimes Mercy Corps’ facilities are looted.

It’s not easy providing humanitarian aid in South Sudan. The crisis requires urgent action and funds. More than 1 million people are on the brink of starvation, and they have exhausted all other options. Many lives depend on foreign aid.

“Let’s not make it a forgotten crisis," Mahla said. "They’re people and they are human beings. And they look at the outside world for support.”

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