South Sudan is suffering famine, a government official said on Monday, adding nearly half the country’s population would lack reliable access to affordable food by July.
South Sudan has been mired in civil war since 2013, when President Salva Kiir fired his deputy. Since then the conflict has increasingly split the country along ethnic lines, leading the United Nations to warn of a potential genocide.
The fighting has prevented many farmers from harvesting their crops, and hyperinflation, which reached more than 800 percent last year, has put the price of imported food beyond the reach of many.
Parts of the country have also been hit by drought.
“In greater Unity (state), some counties are classified in famine or … risk of famine,” Isaiah Chol Aruai, chairman of South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, told a news conference in Juba.
Three UN agencies and the South Sudan government have officially declared the famine in Leer and Mayendit counties in Unity State, with a combination of war and drought having a devastating impact on those affected.
In recent months there have been warnings of famine in Yemen, Somalia and northeastern Nigeria, but South Sudan is the first country where one has been officially declared. It is also the first famine declaration made by the UN since 2011.
The famine classification highlights the human suffering caused by South Sudan’s civil war, and, even as it is declared, President Salva Kiir’s government is blocking food aid to some areas, according to UN officials.
Aruai said some 4.9 million people were expected to become “food insecure” between February and April, with that number rising to 5.5 million by July.
“Famine has become a tragic reality in parts of South Sudan and our worst fears have been realized,” Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) South Sudan representative, Serge Tissot, said at the news conference.
The United Nations defines famine as when at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, and two or more people per 10,000 are dying per day.
The fighting has uprooted more than 3 million people and a U.N. report released on Monday said continuing displacement presented “heightened risks of prolonged (food) underproduction into 2018”.
South Sudan is rich in oil resources. But, six years after independence from neighboring Sudan, there are only 200 km (120 miles) of paved roads in a nation the size of Texas. In the fighting, food warehouses have been looted and aid workers killed.