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The international community must pull-together for South Sudan — before it’s too late

By David Morley      

An estimated 100,000 people are currently facing starvation due to famine in the world's youngest country, which is also facing increasing violence and a collapsing economy.

Protection of Civilians Site in Wau, South Sudan. Photograph courtesy of the United Nations by Nektarios Markogiannis
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The sense of optimism that emerged from South Sudan in July 2011 was palpable. The birth of the world’s youngest country might finally bring peace to the people who had endured the continent’s longest-running civil war. At least that’s what the South Sudanese had hoped for. That’s what we all had hoped for.

When I visited South Sudan just before its third anniversary of independence, I remember describing what I saw to someone as the first circle of Dante’s Inferno — and that was just inside a Protection of Civilians site. Beyond the security of the UN’s barbed wires, the situation was even worse. UNICEF estimated that 50,000 children would die before the end of that year from a resurgence in fighting. If you were to factor in the skyrocketing incidents of violence against children, sexual violence, kidnapping, and recruitment, it was safe to say we had a human catastrophe on our hands.

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UNICEF and humanitarian partners did their best to respond, and we saved many lives. But I’m very sad to report, the children of South Sudan are in no better position today than they were three years ago. In fact, they’re facing a fate far worse.

Civil war, escalating violence, and a collapsing economy are placing the lives of South Sudan’s children in grave danger. The security situation continues to deteriorate in areas of Unity, Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Greater Equatoria, causing massive displacement both within and outside the country. Grave violations against children are becoming commonplace. Schools and hospitals have come under attack. Girls and women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and rape, which has been perpetrated by all parties to the conflict.

The scale of the current crisis is staggering: 4.3 million children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

Last month, the youngest country added another distinction to its resume: for the first time anywhere in the world in the last six years, a famine was declared in parts of South Sudan. The ongoing conflict, coupled with the effects of the economic crisis and depleted stocks from the last harvest, have created a situation where close to 100,000 people are currently facing starvation. Across the country, more than one million children are acutely malnourished, with almost 290,000 children severely malnourished and in need of immediate life-saving assistance.

UNICEF has been on the ground conducting massive relief operations since before the renewed conflict, and is scaling-up its response in the wake of the famine. Through Rapid Response Mechanism teams sent to the most remote and hard-to-reach areas, we’re providing life-saving treatment for malnutrition, immunization and safe water and sanitation services. Already this year, UNICEF has treated nearly 14,000 children with severe acute malnutrition, and reached more than 140,000 children in South Sudan with child protection support, including family tracing and reunification and psychosocial support.

But despite our best efforts, the current scale of the crisis is far outpacing the collective humanitarian response. Aid workers also continue to face multiple obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian assistance across the country, including active hostilities, access denial, and bureaucratic impediments.

Canada’s announcement last month of $119.25-million to help scale up the humanitarian response to the famine crisis, including $9.6-million for UNICEF in South Sudan, is to be commended.

Still, just $13.7-million of UNICEF’s $181-million appeal to meet the urgent humanitarian needs in South Sudan this year has been received. That funding gap of $106-million is quite literally the difference between life and death for millions of children. The international community must act faster to stop the spread of famine and save these children’s lives.

The children of South Sudan need the chance – and have the right – to survive and reach their full potential. And there are other issues at stake that ought to be of critical importance to everyone, like the increasing flow of refugees and the potential for further disruption to regional stability. Last month, the UN warned that Uganda was at a “breaking point” with almost 3,000 refugees crossing over from South Sudan each day.

From independence and hope, to collapse and despair, this must not be the trajectory we concede for South Sudan. The future for the children of South Sudan would be too devastating, and the consequences for the region too dangerous.

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