Poor rains, failing crops and fighting - the state of food security in South Sudan

By Stella Madete,Oxfam in South Sudan

Harvested maize in Jonglei State. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

Monica has not been home in Malakal for almost two years. She has not seen or spoken to two of her four children either. All she wants is to go back home, but to do that, she needs the fighting to stop long enough for peace to find its place.

“I left Malakal with my husband and two children when the war started in December 2013. I have not seen or spoken to the other two since then,” she says. “We moved to Pigi County, and then to Pultruk, where we received food Oxfam. The past two years have been very difficult.”

Her children are among the 45,000 people sheltered in Malakal “Protection of Civilians” (PoC) camp, in Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Monica and the rest of her family are the few who fled when conflict erupted in South Sudan, forced to leave their children in the chaos and confusion.

Monica Tip at her temporary home in Jonglei state. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

“I want to go home and find my children, because I cannot sleep not knowing how they are. I hope for peace so that everyone is able to go back home, and one night can pass without the sound of a gunshot,” she says. Unable to provide for herself, Monica, a certified medical nurse, can’t wait for the day she walks back into the Malakal Teaching Hospital to start a shift. “I am a strong woman. I am used to working and taking care of my family. What I want to most is to be able to do that again.”

Approximately 1.65 million people have been displaced by 21 months of violence in South Sudan, including around 630,000 people who are sheltering in neighbouring countries. This means that people like Monica cannot earn an income like they used to and are forced to rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. It also means that harvests are down because farmers are not cultivating or were forced off their land after planting. Markets across the country are disrupted, with the remaining few selling imported goods at exorbitant prices.

“This year, the rains came late and the crops I was couting on died. This has been happening for two years now, and we sometimes have to eat wild vegetables,” says Rachel Nyakier, a seasoned farmer in Lankien pointing at a tree in her compound. “Many farmers here are experiencing it, and I don’t know why. Maybe it is a punishment for all the fighting. I just pray for the rains to return to the way they used to be so that I can farm again. Things at the market are too expensive for me.”

Rachel Nyakier stands in front of her land bare of any crops due to unpredictible and unreliable rains. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

According to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis, released today, four million people in the country are severely hungry — nearly twice as many compared to this time last year, a clear testament to the devastation caused by war, erratic rains and a worsening economic crisis. Oxfam has coordinated monthly distribution of food to over 180,000 people in South Sudan in the past year alone — providing food to people displaced by the conflict as well as those from communities hosting those who have been displaced.

Oxfam food distribution in Akobo, Jonglei State. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

The report estimates that by December 2015, at least 2.4 million people will continue to face severe food insecurity, both in conflict-affected areas and in other parts of the country.

“We came back home in 2009 because peace had finally come. We worked hard to cultivate our land and were able to live off it for years. That all changed this year,” says Orlino, a farmer in Lobonok, Central Equatoria State. “The rains were very poor. Our crops did not do well, and we no longer have enough to eat, let alone sell. Most of us are now cutting trees to make charcoal to sell by the road, waiting to harvest the crops that survive. If this borehole was not here, we would have migrated by now.”

Orlino checking his bags of firewood by the road next to his farm, where maize is growing and an abnromally slow rate. Some of the crops have already failed. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

In the Greater Equatoria region, the deteriorating food security is pushing families closer to the brink. This has greater implications for families that don’t have access to basic services like healthcare and education.

“Adults here are strong. We grew up in during the war and learnt to adapt to difficult situations. I cannot say the same for our children. I worry about them everyday,” says Jackson Lore, a member of the Lomerica farmers group. “We have no schools here, no hospitals and farming has been difficult this year. Many of our children are running away from home, going to Juba in search of something better, only to end up in the streets. They are lost to us and they will be lost to South Sudan.”

Jackson Lore, third person from the left on the back row with members of the Lamerica farmers group. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

Oxfam’s Peace and Prosperity Programme in Greater Equatoria region worked with communities to improve access to water through boreholes and food security through farm inputs and training on alternative farming methods. Farmers reported surplus harvests that were able to carry families through the dry seasons, but this was not the case in 2015. The gains made with this support are at risk of being erased due to the erratic climate and grim economic forecast. The October — December harvest season is expected to greatly improve the situation as people will have better access to their own food, as well as income from their produce sales. However, these gains will be much lower than in 2014.

“It’s not easy being a farmer. You need to have a strong heart or you will not survive. This year has been very hard on farmers — the rains are bad and most of the crops have failed,” says Celina, a farmer from Karperto in Central Equatoria. “Even if it’s difficult, the fact that you know that people depend on you, and that you are the only one providing for them, you get the energy from somewhere. If you don’t, then you will die. It’s what life is about, continuity.”

Celina holding a handful of pumkin leaves from her farm, with few cassava plants growing behind her. Stella Madete/Oxfam.

Although many have faced a tough year, some still hold on to the hope that things will change for the better in the coming months. South Sudanese people’s ability to recover will remain fragile until people can fully resume rebuilding their livelihoods.Humanitarian assistance has helped avert major food insecurity; but there’s an urgent need for more and safe access for aid actors to reach people in the worst conflict affected areas.

‘This unbearable suffering will only end if the peace agreement holds, fighting stops immediately and the long process of reconciliation begins,” says Oxfam South Sudan Country Director, Zlatko Gegic. “Oxfam appeals to the warring parties to respect the ceasefire and enable people to reach the help they desperately need. The international community must continue to apply all diplomatic measures that will support the delivery of real, lasting peace.”