02/02/2012 18:38 GMT | Updated 03/04/2012 06:12 BST

South Sudan Threatened by 'Perfect Storm' of Famine, Tribal Violence and Escalating Conflict Over Oil

Between 2007 and 2010, Sir John Holmes - then UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs - visited Southern Sudan three times as it struggled towards independence amid problems of conflict, lack of capacity and food insecurity. Last week, he returned to the world's newest country as it faces a 'perfect storm' of unresolved issues with Sudan, tribal clashes, growing violence along its northern border, and a new food crisis. Sir John is now Director of the Ditchley Foundation and a member of the International Rescue Committee UK's Board of Trustees.

For many of us, our mental film reel of South Sudan is frozen on the euphoric independence celebrations of last July. Today's reality is that a country already facing huge challenges may be about to hit a perfect storm, triggered by a decision to cut off the oil pipeline to the north, but built on an incomplete and messy divorce with the northern government in Khartoum, growing internal instability and a looming food crisis.

Four days in South Sudan last week with the International Rescue Committee brought home to me not only the scale of the underlying problems, but also the depth of the economic and humanitarian crisis into which it may be about to plunge. The sense of pride at having achieved the long-yearned for goal of independence from the north is still palpable, but outside the booming capital, Juba, existence is a hard scrabble. Basic services of clean water, health and education remain virtually non-existent for the majority. Despite vast reserves of cultivable land and water, anything other than subsistence cultivation is a rarity, while cattle, treated as a sort of currency, are a hugely underused asset. The position of women, bought as wives with those cattle, and treated as property thereafter in a largely polygamous society, remains mostly dire. Inter-tribal conflict is ever more devastating in terms of deaths and displacement, as we have seen recently in Jonglei State.

No government could have changed these things in the seven months since the jubilation of independence. But what worries donors and responsible citizens alike is how little they have been able to achieve since they came into office in 2006. The bare bones of an administration are there and ministers and senior officials can now talk the talk, but capacity to implement government policy is very low, and corruption increasingly high.

Despite all these difficulties, the southerners I talked to said they had lived with great privations before and would do so again, if that was what it took to gain freedom from the pressures of the hated north. But that is to hide from the consequences from what might be about to happen, not least because a wider perfect storm is brewing. In addition to an estimated 200,000 people displaced by the tribal conflict in Jonglei, fighting between the Khartoum government and south-leaning militias in the northern border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile is driving tens of thousands of people south, into a country already struggling with hundreds of thousands of voluntary returnees and hardly able to receive them.

If the government in the north goes through with the threat of expelling over 500,000 southerners by April, a new tidal wave of forced migration will place an unbearable strain on towns and villages in the south. The separate food crisis now looming larger in vulnerable parts of the country - half a million people are in need of food aid, according to the World Food Programme - could add yet another element to what could easily become a full-blown humanitarian emergency.

If the situation wasn't critical enough, the escalating row over oil between north and south could light the fuse in a fully loaded powder keg. South and North Sudan have been unable to agree on how revenue from oil - extracted mostly in the south but sent to the north for export - should be shared. Mutual recriminations over pipeline fees and revenue release have plumbed new depths in recent months, to the point where the South is moving to close the pipeline and the oilfields. If the situation persists, they will be committing short-term economic suicide. About 98% of the government's revenue comes from oil. An alternative pipe-line route to Kenya looks more like a pipe-dream, and would in any case take years to build. International aid cannot replace the lost oil revenue. Financial reserves are a few weeks or months at best. After that, salaries will go unpaid, or the printing presses will roll. The Juba bubble is likely to burst whatever happens, but hyperinflation is almost certain in the second case. The suffering of the population will increase.

How should the outside world respond if the storm breaks? Aid agencies will once again wearily switch their programmes away from development and back to emergency humanitarian relief. Economic self-reliance, women's empowerment and civil society strengthening being fostered by careful programmes from IRC and other NGOs, as well as the UN, may have to return to the back burner. The long haul to a better future already facing donors and people will become longer still.

We cannot abandon the people of South Sudan at such a moment of renewed need, whatever our frustrations. They have suffered so long for their prized independence and deserve so much better. But even if the present crisis is mitigated by some kind of agreement after even worse north-south brinkmanship than we are used to, the international community will have to demand much more and better from the government in Juba, as well as pressing Khartoum. The message may be unwelcome. But accepting responsibility is part of independence too.

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