Tens of thousands of people face severe food insecurity as they hide in the bush in South Sudan's Jonglei State following another wave of violence that has cut off aid to them.
"We believe these people need food now and cannot wait for much longer after hiding in the bush for weeks," said Chris Nikoi, the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) South Sudan country director, in a statement on 23 July. "We need more food supplies in the country and more helicopters to take this food to those who most need it."
More than 100,000 people are out of reach of humanitarian support following violence that broke out in July between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities and following clashes between the government and a rebel movement led by David Yau Yau. Over the past six months, around 120,000 people have fled to the bush as insecurity gathered pace.
Insecurity, rains and a lack of roads or useable airstrips make it very difficult to reach the neediest, especially with heavy foodstuffs.
"The delivery of food aid poses extra logistical challenges as trucks are unable to move along water-logged roads, and we do not have enough helicopters to fly sufficient food to the swamp-like areas," Toby Lanzer, the humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, said in an 18 July statement.
WFP said it was providing food assistance to the displaced in areas it could access, but required US$20 million to purchase food and hire helicopters for an operation to feed 60,000 people until December. Humanitarian agencies in South Sudan are facing an overall funding shortfall of $472 million.
Extreme coping strategies
Murle communities have already resorted to extreme coping strategies, with some eating wild fruits and leaves; following cattle raids, thought to be in the tens of thousands, the population is slaughtering female cattle for meat, even if this means they cannot replenish stocks.
Women who have been hiding in the bush with children for days or weeks have walked into towns to collect food, but those IRIN spoke to said they would return to the swamps, where they have no shelter, healthcare or clean water, as they feared security forces more than disease or hunger.
"Even prior to the start of armed conflict, the UN and the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET) reported [Jonglei's] Pibor County was experiencing chronic levels of food insecurity and predicted that 39,000 people would be severely food insecure in early 2013, with food insecurity potentially reaching emergency thresholds by July-August," said a statement by InterAction, an alliance of US-based NGOs.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in 2012, "pre-harvest malnutrition rates between January and July were already approaching emergency thresholds", while as of March 2013, 12 percent of Jonglei's population was severely food insecure and 24 percent moderately food insecure.
Access to populations in need
On 14 July, after protracted negotiations with state and non-state armed groups, charities were allowed access to around 25,000 people in parts of the state.
Vincent Lelei, head of OCHA in South Sudan, said aid agencies had only accessed "a very, very small part [of Pibor county] both for logistical and security reasons," although thousands had been suffering for six months.
"Going forward into the lean season, it is very likely that they will get into difficulty," he said, adding that flying in food would be more difficult than flying in other commodities such as plastic sheeting, water purification tablets and medicines, as limited air assets meant the UN had "very limited weight to carry".
Lelei said some of the populations they had accessed showed signs of serious illness, while Lanzer noted that "some children show signs of measles, a fatal disease in such conditions".
Some of those affected do not want to come in to towns to seek help. "They are afraid to seek medical care in towns, so it is essential for us to intervene where they are so that all those in need can access treatment," said John Tzanos, head of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team in Pibor.
MSF is running the only healthcare facility in the village of Gumuruk after its hospital in Pibor was destroyed during clashes in May.