One of the hardest parts of my job is seeing mothers turned away from one of Save the Children's health clinics, even when their babies are malnourished. Supplies have run so low that we can only treat the most severe cases of starvation and have to prioritise children most at risk. Any medic or parent will know how heart-breaking that is.
But here in South Sudan, life is precarious and every decision could be life-changing. If the conflict doesn't reach your village, hunger and thirst will. Girls are dropping out of school to spend three days a week in the bush collecting leaves to eat. Boys spend five hours a day digging deep into the dried river bed to reach water for their thirsty cattle.
My wife and I made a difficult decision ourselves three months ago. Although Kapoeta, our home town in South Sudan, may be safe now, that may not always be the case. As a safety measure, my wife and children have fled over the border to Kenya. They are in a refugee camp, until the conflict settles. At least there my children can get an education. Here in Kapoeta many schools have shut because children are too hungry to attend school. Their time is filled foraging for wild fruits, anything they can get their hands on - fruit that will soon run out if it doesn't rain soon.
Famine has been declared in three states in South Sudan and more than one million children in the country now risk starvation. The number of people hit by this food crisis is up by nearly 40% following the worst harvest season since South Sudan became the world's newest nation in 2011. Children are the most at risk of dying as they are less able to withstand acute malnutrition, their small and weakened bodies more susceptible to diseases such as measles, malaria and cholera.
Everyone working for Save the Children knows that we have a small window of opportunity to stop this famine spreading. We are praying that the rains do come. It hasn't rained properly since May last year. Traditional 'rain makers' are in deep trouble in their villages as they have failed to do their job. Some of their lives have even been threatened. Without rain we can't grow crops or keep cattle alive. If the drought continues, famine will spread. So it's crucial we get enough emergency food and medicine into the areas where children are already hungry, and could easily starve if we don't intervene.
The British public have been incredibly generous to South Sudan despite many of them never having been here themselves and we are very grateful for that.
Save the Children is running 16 clinics across Kapoeta where mothers bring their children for a check-up and if they are severely malnourished, they're given a two-month supply of emergency food to increase their weight. But malnutrition is the cause of many secondary diseases, such as pneumonia, which is five times as likely to plague a child if they're malnourished. Other killers like Edema are deceptive, with water retention luring mothers into a false sense of security as they believe their child looks plump and healthy. Yesterday our team lost an 18 month old baby, Lomilo, to Edema. We'd diagnosed her and were treating her in our intensive care unit, but she'd been brought to the clinic too late and we couldn't save her.
As with Lomilo, there's more to this crisis than meets the eye. Drought is natural but famine is always man-made. But whatever your politics, the truth is that innocent children always suffer first and foremost. Luckily we know what needs to be done. The difficult thing is to sound the alarm loud enough that we can urge donors to help us buy the right supplies in time. Right now it's supposed to be the rainy season, we don't want it to be the dying season.
Aid agencies are often criticised for showing photos of African children with flies in their eyes. Of course it pains me that my country is thought of as poor. But nobody talks about why the flies swarm around children, who haven't been washed in months because a shower for them would mean a cow dying of thirst. Nobody sees the shame in their mothers eyes when visitors come to their village to check on the children's health. Or the anger when NGO's say they haven't got the funds to properly help them.
So I tell these mothers to just keep going. Dig for hours to find water underground. Walk for days to find nuts in the bush. Skip meal after meal to keep your children alive. Help is coming. And until then you just have to survive. That's what I tell myself every day when I miss my family painfully and get up, get ready for work, and just keep going.