People wait in line to check in to a food distribution in UN House, a UN base on the outskirts of Juba, 2014. Photo taken by Crystal Wells/Concern Worldwide.

Consequences of conflict: coping with hunger in South Sudan

Ongoing conflict in South Sudan has caused a myriad of problems for the world’s youngest nation.

The potential of South Sudan is enormous. With rich natural resources and agricultural potential, and a young population, this is a country that should be thriving.

But as you read this article, South Sudan is facing another hunger crisis.

Late rains combined with the many consequences of conflict have spawned a deluge of problems for civilians, including spiralling inflation, interrupted trade and a lack of cultivation due to displacement.

These factors have created a perfect storm that could see upwards of 4.6 million people facing extreme hunger. But to understand how conflict is causing displacement and exacerbating food crises in South Sudan, you must look at the history of conflict within the country and how it has impacted the day-to-day lives of communities.

Conflict in South Sudan: a potted history

South Sudan has experienced high levels of armed conflict since the 1950s. Two particularly intense periods culminated in the loss of over 2.5 million lives and disrupted tens of millions of livelihoods.

The first major conflict, spanning 22 years from 1983 to 2005 between the government of the Republic of Sudan and the Sudanese People‘s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), was largely regarded as a North/South conflict for control over resources and — from the perspective of SPLA/M — for political autonomy, self-determination and secularism. The discovery of oil in the 1980s intensified the conflict. Political negotiations in the early 2000s led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 which was the catalyst for calling a referendum in south Sudan on independence. In 2011, South Sudan proclaimed its independence and became the newest state in the world.

Lamentably, this fledgling state was to descend into its second and current armed conflict in December 2013 with a split in the SPLA government between the President, Salva Kiir, and the ex-Vice President Riak Machar and their followers.

“Men can find easily reason to fight, while finding food is more difficult.” Nuer proverb

The figures representing those displaced by this conflict are grave. As of July 2015, there were 1.6 million internally displaced people; 607,608 refugees in neighbouring countries; 4.6 million people severely food insecure; and there has been an increase of 64,000 people seeking safety at UNMISS bases since December 2014.

Concern has conducted a study of how this political instability, combined with climate-based disasters, has impacted on the population, particularly with regard to food security. These are our findings.

People wait in line to receive food, water, and basic household items in Tomping, a UN base that is now housing some 16,000 displaced people. Photo taken by Crystal Wells/Concern Worldwide.

The effects of conflict in Northern Bahr el Ghazal

Northern Bahr el Ghazal is found in the northwest of South Sudan. Bordering the South Darfur state of the Republic of Sudan, the area lies in floodplains and livelihoods rely heavily on livestock and sorghum.

Having experienced trauma and violence since the 1950s, the worst years for civilians were those when the rains failed, flooding caused poor harvests and attacks prevented cultivation of the land.

In the conflict of the eighties and nineties, villages saw their cows looted, their chiefs killed and their houses burned down. This intensified during the nineties when drought, violent attacks and the burning of grain compounded their problems and led to starvation. Conflict combined with climate- based disasters, such as flooding, resulted in people having to migrate to North Sudan, many dying en route. Those who stayed saw further strain on their food supplies as they were forced to feed the SPLA — which saw many adopt the coping strategy of burying food beneath their houses or in the bush to hide it from the army.

In the past, the fighting was only between soldiers. Civilians, children, cows, gardens and houses were not targeted. This conflict is totally different.

Naditne Thoch from Guit.

There are many other coping strategies: food reduction; collection of firewood and wild foods to sell at the market; borrowing or begging for food from neighbours; and offering to labour on neighbour’s lands. If these strategies fail, chickens, goats and finally cattle are sold. Due to the social importance of cattle, selling them is seen as a major negative coping strategy.

In June 2015, when we did this research, the sorghum crop was in a very poor state due to late rains and civilians were already selling their goats, calves and cows to buy food from the market — early coping strategies in another food crisis.

…for now, we are worried about two major consequences, hunger and the death of our children…

Angelina Abuk Nyibek from Langich, Marial Bai.

People collect water at a Concern Worldwide water point at the displacement camp on the UN base in Bentiu. Photo taken by Crystal Wells/Concern Worldwide.

Internally displaced people in Bentiu

Bentiu is the capital of Unity State in the north of South Sudan, bordering Southern Kordofan State in the Republic of Sudan and the contested Abyei area. Livelihoods here are reliant on livestock, sorghum, maize, simsim and fish. In the UN camp in Bentiu camp, people recall the effects of many climate-based disasters such as flooding and drought over the years.

The worst hunger we had was when there was bad hunger in 1988… the flooding destroyed our crops. There was also too much tsetse-fly which disturbed the cattle, and calves drowned in the water.

Mary Nyakuan from Bentiu.

A particularly bad flood in 1988 destroyed crops. Tseste-fly disturbed cattle and led to the drowning of calves in the flood water. People were forced to survive on flood-resistant plants such as ‘chesh’, coconut, water lilies and leaves. Cow’s milk was consumed and often cows were killed for their meat.

More recently, Bentiu camp residents told us that they fled to UN protection out of genuine fear for their lives. They noted that the targeting of civilians differentiated from previous conflicts. In previous conflicts, combatants were the primary target, with some ‘collateral’ killing of civilians. In this new conflict, a ‘scorched earth’ policy appears to be at play, with civilians reporting that houses were being burned down, crops were being destroyed, cattle and other livestock were taken and that elders, women and children were being abducted or killed. There were also reports of the rape of women.

Faced with such traumatic and violent events, hunger was seen as the lesser, secondary effect of conflict.

If I was not worried for my life, I would have stayed in the village with the cows.

Ntabuok Wated from Guit.

Hunger in Bentiu

In Bentiu, before fleeing their homes, communities were razed to the ground with armed forces deliberately destroying crops and stealing livestock.

Prior to having to flee their land, communities in Bentiu adopted similar strategies to those living in Northern Bahr el Ghazal such as: reducing the quantities of food, reducing meal frequency to once a day. Once food became sparse, they prioritised who got it: children between 2 and 5, children over 5 years, grandparents, men, and finally women.

Their proximity to rivers enabled them to avoid migration as they could plant in the summer near river banks. The river bed enabled them to dig wells for drinking water as well as irrigation. Despite these strategies communities sometimes had to go into the bush to forage for firewood or grass, putting themselves at risk of attack by wild animals.

On reaching the camp, mothers and children tended to be starving but not dying — they received biometric ration cards and then waited their turn in the queue. While in the queue they received food from people they knew and some degree of lending or sharing took place. People reported being happy with the ration and had enough food, however, they had become reliant on external support by humanitarian agencies for protection, food and water.

Child nutritional levels at the camps appear to be worsening from arrival to several weeks after — this is potentially due to a number of factors including: delay of receipt of camp ration; environment and weather causing diarrhoea, fever and eye pain; and mother’s selling their therapeutic foods at the market in order to buy food for their older children.

Food security in Aweil

Currently in Aweil, civilians are faced with two conflicts: internal fighting in South Sudan and sporadic attacks from groups in the Republic of Sudan or allied factions. These conflicts have devastating indirect impacts on family household food economy and food security.

A combination of factors including poor yields in 2014 due to erratic rainfall, insecurity along supplies routes, multiple taxations and high food prices, as well as a high inflation rate, mean that the food situation looks very bleak. Difficulty in transferring money from those who have migrated or work in the army, and the loss of male labour to cultivate the land, is also having a significant impact on food security.

Money falls through your fingers but cattle are forever.

Dinka proverb

Conflict has also disrupted the movement of cattle for seasonal grazing. This impacts people in both a social and cultural context: ‘cattle camps’ are seen as central to the fabric of South Sudanese society and culture.

Conclusion

Tremendous progress has been made toward eliminating global hunger. The level of hunger in developing countries has fallen by 27 percent since 2000 — but there is still more to be done as illustrated by the experiences of the South Sudanese.

Conflict is development in reverse. Without peace, ending poverty and hunger by 2030 will never be achieved.

The scale of the problem demands a new approach to address the issues which are causing people to live in a state of protracted displacement. As we continue to operate in complex emergencies to respond to growing needs, the issue of armed conflict and its impact on the most vulnerable will become increasingly important for Concern.

There is no single solution that will resolve these incredibly complex crises but we can offer credible, reliable insights in to the impact of armed conflict.

As stated in this year’s Global Hunger Index report:

Food security is not only an essential component of human well-being but also a foundation for political stability.

Alex de Waal

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Working with the world’s poorest people to transform their lives. And we tweet.

Working with the world’s poorest people to transform their lives. And we tweet.