No less than 5.5 million lives are at risk as famine looms large over South Sudan, the United Nations (UN) has warned. This follows a wave of floods and severe droughts that have destroyed crops and livestock.

“The scale of the loss from the harvest is enormous,” said Matthew Hollingworth, country director for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). According to him, fields with 73,000 tonnes of sorghum, millet, and corn have been lost as well as tens of thousands of cattle, chickens, and goats on which families depended for survival.

In order to avert mass starvation that threatens over 40 percent of the country’s population, the WFP has revealed that it needs up to $270 million urgently to provide food to hungry South Sudanese in the first half of next year.

“Every factor is in place for there to be famine in 2020 unless we take immediate action to expand our deliveries in areas affected by floods and other areas affected by food loss,” Hollingworth said, speaking with Reuters on Thursday.

Already, acute malnutrition rates in South Sudanese children under the age of five have surpassed the global emergency threshold of 15 percent, Hollingworth noted. They rose from 13 percent in 2018 to 16 percent this year.

The UN agency needs to “pre-position food around the country in the next two to three months,” the official said, adding that it would be impossible to get road access to many remote communities after the rainy season begins.

Inaccessible roads, cholera fears

After months of flooding, the South Sudan government in October declared a state of emergency in 27 areas affected by floods. The move was meant to allow humanitarian organizations to access people in the areas.

Since July, about 900,000 people have been directly affected by heavy rains across the country, according to French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). In a statement released this week, WFP puts the figure at nearly 1 million, stating that the waters have not receded in many places.

In the worst affected areas in the eastern region, roads have been cut off and bridges swept away, making them inaccessible. There are also fears of cholera and other waterborne diseases breaking out due to poor sanitation.

Hollingworth said water-borne diseases are spreading, although no cholera has been detected. But the situation “can only get worse because of the situation and environment people are living in.”

“The space is increasingly congested, thick with mud, has no latrines and just one functioning borehole. Some people are left with no alternative but to drink from the same open and contaminated water sources as they are washing in,” MSF said in a statement in October.

Political instability

The whole situation compounds the “intense political instability” in South Sudan, the UN agency warned on the world’s youngest nation which plunged into civil war in 2013.

Less than two years after it gained independence from Sudan, on the back on decades of war, President Salva Kiir accused Vice President Riek Machar of plotting a coup.

The resulting conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and forced millions from their homes despite the fact that warring parties signed numerous peace deals. The latest of those agreements was supposed to culminate in the formation of a unity government on November 12.

But the deadline was extended by 100 days and subsequently, progress in talks has stalled over disagreements on the number of states the country should have. Despite the peace deal, Hollingworth revealed that inter-communal fighting still occurs in pockets hit by the flooding.

“Hunger and desperation bring instability when resources are stretched to the extent that makes an already unstable situation much worse. It is a wake-up call for us all,” the WFP director said.

Similar to the WFP alarm on South Sudan, the UN humanitarian agency earlier this month said at least 280 people have been killed and over 2.8 million others affected by unusually heavy rainfall and flooding in eastern Africa.

Homes, infrastructure and livelihoods have been destroyed and damaged in the hardest-hit areas, and the risk of communicable diseases including cholera is rising, Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on December 5.

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