29/05/2014 13:09 BST | Updated 29/07/2014 06:59 BST

Time to Put the Spotlight on South Sudan


Picture copyright UNICEF/Kate Holt

South Sudan's children are suffering - and the crisis is set to get worse - much worse - in the coming months if more action is not taken urgently. The world's newest nation is on the brink of devastation with a brutal conflict destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and a growing humanitarian emergency putting the entire future of the country and its children in jeopardy.

The United Nations Secretary General has predicted that by the end of this year, an incredible half of South Sudan's 12million people will be either in flight, facing starvation, or dead. At least half of these will be children.

As hunger sweeps across the country, up to 50,000 children are already at risk of dying from malnutrition. Many families are now being forced to eat wild grass and bulbs to survive.

Heartbreakingly, thousands of children have become separated from their families within South Sudan and in neighbouring countries - alone, frightened and at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. Children are witnessing and experiencing the most horrific and extreme acts of violence and more than half a million have been forced to flee the conflict.

And disturbingly, over 9,000 children have been recruited by armed forces and armed groups, being forced to take part in a conflict they don't understand.

We are not only seeing children suffering on the sidelines of this conflict, but too many children are actually being deliberately targeted in unthinkable acts, including sexual violence, which can prove as devastating to their lives as bullets and bombs.

And now, a major cholera epidemic is putting even more children's lives at risk. In Juba, the number of people affected by the deadly and highly contagious disease is doubling every day, with dozens of children already in need of urgent treatment as the outbreak takes hold.

Conflict, violence, malnutrition and disease - all the ingredients are there for the perfect storm. And the rainy season is beginning to make up to two thirds of the country virtually inaccessible by road, making humanitarian assistance even more challenging.

Yet still the emergency in South Sudan is failing to make the headlines. What more will it take before urgent attention is brought to the plight of this young nation, whose children are already among the world's most disadvantaged?

The crisis remains desperately under-funded - Unicef needs £66million to reach children and women affected by the crisis, of which only one third is currently funded. Unicef and other humanitarian agencies are in a race against time to reach the most vulnerable families and save children's lives.

Unicef teams are working round the clock to respond to the crisis - including stemming the cholera outbreak before it spreads further.

Teams have helped set up a cholera treatment centre in Juba and are supplying tents for patient care, hygiene equipment, thousands of litres of clean water and oral rehydration solutions. Communicating and warning of the risks of cholera is also crucial and Unicef is sending out mass public health messages through radio, banners and posters and community talks.

However urgent funds are needed to reach more children before it's too late.

A major pledging conference for South Sudan was held in Oslo this week. The world's governments gathered together to make vital promises of support to the fledging nation. These promises must be honoured.

However, whilst all pledges are welcome, what has been promised still falls far short of what is needed to respond to this escalating emergency.

And the longer funding takes to come in, the more children there will be at risk of suffering and dying.

As well as humanitarian funding, South Sudan is in dire need of a political solution and peace-building process. Right now, all parties to the conflict must provide unhindered and safe access for humanitarian assistance; and to respect their own agreements to stop violence against children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the recruitment of children.

Children's lives are being stopped in their tracks. We can only imagine what hope South Sudan has of building a brighter future, if its children - its future leaders - are traumatised by conflict.

It is high time we shone the spotlight on South Sudan. This is a nation on the edge of a catastrophe that can no longer be ignored - the voices of its people and its children deserve to be heard. We owe it to them to listen and to act.