In a report released today, Oxfam and other aid agencies are warning that rival groups in South Sudan are regrouping ready to resume violence once the rainy season ends this month. An upsurge in fighting would exacerbate what is already the world's worst food crisis and could lead to famine. The number of people facing dangerous levels of hunger is expected to increase by one million between January and March.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The world's newest state was created after a long and bloody war that split Sudan in two. South Sudan's liberation heroes, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, emerged from the fighting as President and Deputy of the newly independent South Sudan in 2011. The world wanted them to succeed, but the honeymoon is long since over.
On a recent visit to South Sudan, I met some of the nearly two million people displaced as a result of the current civil war between groups led by the two now bitter rivals. The experience was chastening. The suffering is unimaginable; a family divided and still searching for missing members; a woman fleeing to the jungle leaving her disabled husband to his fate; another being dragged off for sexual slavery and escaping many months later. Multiply these stories by tens of thousands and you begin to get the picture. There are now over a hundred thousand people inside UN run camps, ten times that number having fled the fighting, living wherever they can outside and dependent on aid, and a total of maybe four million in need of food assistance.
This is already one of the world's biggest disasters. But it could become even bigger. This is in spite of the absence of two of the most common components of large scale hunger and famine. In Somalia in 2011, as in so many other disasters, there was prolonged drought, and the international community were slow to respond. Neither is true here. This is a man-made disaster.
Contrary to so many humanitarian disasters, the rains have come just when they were meant to. There is no reason that people can't grow food to feed themselves, -except war. Seed and animals have been looted or destroyed. Millions have fled their homes and fields haven't been planted. So the very rainfall that is making the delivery of aid so difficult in a country with only 50 miles of tarred roads is doing little to nourish the crops that should feed the people for the coming year.
The international community have responded quickly and at scale, with the British government and NGOs very much to the fore. There is a vast operation, coordinated by the UN that offers both military protection and oversees the complex distribution of aid and support for basic services across the country. Getting assistance to the scattering of UN protected camps is challenging, and not without risk. A UN supply helicopter was recently shot down killing three crew members. Getting help to people living in fear right across the vast country is even more difficult, dangerous and therefore sporadic.
This international effort stands between the people of South Sudan and widespread death. When fighting broke out the UN peacekeepers, still there after the last war, opened their gates to the fleeing masses. A hundred thousand people still remain in these compounds. That protection and the immense help the international community have given since should make us all proud. But that doesn't mean that it is enough.
Many people are starving. Famine is both an emotive and a technical term; it reflects scale, nutritional levels and how many people are dying. Without the UN coordinated aid programme there would almost certainly already be a famine. Even with it, and so far only half the funds needed to run the programme in coming months have been raised, the challenge of feeding people until there is peace is a massive one. We may or may not avert famine, but we have saved lives. However, many people will undoubtedly die and many, many more will suffer.
Meanwhile, what happened to our heroes, now so absolutely committed to fighting each other that they seem blind to the suffering caused? The women I spoke to in Malakal, which changed hands six months into the fighting, just can't understand them. Nor do they, or anyone else, give any credence to peace negotiations and ceasefires that never materialise. These women live side by side with families of different tribal groups they are being encouraged to fight. They all had nothing but contempt for those who led them to freedom but have since taken it away again. "Let them see our lives now" they said, "then they will make peace fast enough".
Having tried in vain for days on behalf of one the world's biggest NGOs, which is also one of South Sudan's most loyal and long serving friends, to get even a meeting with senior government leaders and having been told by the leader of the opposition that the peace agreement apparently signed more than a month ago is meaningless, I am not so sure.
Our increased international efforts have got to be to push for peace. The innocent civilians suffering and starving are no more responsible for their plight than we are. And they have even less power. The international community is still selling and supplying arms to both sides and we must up the diplomatic pressure regionally and globally. And while we do that we have to fund an even bigger aid programme so that famine does not occur.