South Sudan: ‘We Harvested Some Crops, But It Is Not Enough’

Conflict in South Sudan has hurt many families' ability to grow crops, and has left markets empty. WFP and our partner agencies have mounted an intensive humanitarian asistance operation that has brought relief to many remote communities, and food security is improving somewhat as the harvest comes in, even if it is limited in the places worst-affected by the fighting. But there are still serious concerns for the future as the conflict continues. 

JIECH – Nyanduth Gathkok sat under a fruit tree with a few cobs of maize spread in front of her waiting for prospective buyers. She is one of a handful of people who have items to sell or exchange at what could be called a market in Jiech, a village in Ayod county of Jonglei State in the east of South Sudan. 

Gathkok’s family lost their cattle and goats as a result of the chaos brought about by the conflict that has gripped South Sudan since December last year. She trekked for three hours to Jiech from her hamlet of Sondjok in the hope of selling the maize she harvested from her small farm and using the money to buy milk for her children.  

“I know we are in a war, but I tried to grow some crops when there was little fighting,” Gathkok said through an interpreter. “I did not plant very much because of fear that enemies might come, so my farm did not produce enough. 

“I don’t think the food will be enough for us, and now I even have to sell the little that I harvested or my children will not drink milk,” she added. 

Empty Markets 

The conflict pushed the three-year-old country to the brink of a hunger catastrophe as people’s livelihoods were disrupted when hundreds of thousands were displaced and unable to grow crops. Insecurity has prevented food from reaching the markets through the normal commercial supply routes, so in many places there is little food to buy, and what does make it to market is expensive.  

This was evident at the market in Jiech. Apart from Gathkok and three other women selling maize, there was just one woman selling catfish, a hunter selling an antelope and two traders with assorted items including ointments, razor blades and salt. 

“I trekked for 27 days from Akobo (near the Ethiopian border) to Jiech with salt and the blades. That is why they cost so much,” said Nya Duel, one of the traders. “It is hard to bring goods because of the war; that is why I cannot bring food items to sell. 

“If you have to travel 27 days on foot with food on your head you will end up eating it all,” he added with a smile. 

Some Recovery, But Fragile

There are signs of improvement, however, in the most recent analysis from the integrated phase classification (IPC) process, which monitors food security.  The number of people in the Crisis and Emergency phases has dropped by more than half to 1.5 million, mostly concentrated in the conflict affected states of Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei. 

According to this assessment, large amounts of humanitarian assistance combined with several other factors – which, in areas where farmers were able to plant a crop, include the early harvest of crops that are not quite ripe (called a ”green harvest”), which started as early as August and is still going on now, and the regular harvest, to come in October – will improve access to food, particularly when supplemented by available wild foods, fish and livestock.    

In spite of the improvements, the IPC analysis indicated that one-third of the population in the conflict affected states will remain at the Crisis or Emergency levels. Furthermore, the analysis warns that without a return to peace and sustained humanitarian assistance, a hunger catastrophe remains a real threat at the start of 2015 as families will by then have depleted the little food stocks they have harvested. 

A Village Struggles

Jiech is a good example of South Sudan’s complex food security situation, particularly in the conflict affected states. 

Because it has stayed relatively calm, the villagers there and in the surrounding hamlets – including Gathok’s – were able to plant some crops. But there has been an influx of thousands of people who fled fierce fighting that occurred in May in the town of Ayod, about 50 kilometers away. 

The displaced people, who were not able to cultivate food for themselves, make up the majority of the nearly 15,000 people receiving assistance here from the World Food Programme and its partner Catholic Relief Services (CRS).  The  little food that was grown by the host community will be depleted very soon. 

“World Food [Programme] came here and gave us food when we were hungry, and our brothers had come to hide here, and nobody had food,” Gathkok said. “Now they have come again with their planes and their food. I hope they will not let us down because we have only little food we have grown. 

“I think with this little food and their [WFP’s] support, we shall be happy and our bellies full,” she said. 

Reaching Those In Need

WFP is using airlifts and airdrops in remote, hard-to-reach areas, such as Jiech, where mobile emergency teams are deployed to conduct large-scale distributions of food and other forms of assistance.  The teams include staff from WFP and other UN agencies, notably UNICEF, and from NGO partners, to provide a full package of food, nutrition & livelihood assistance along with emergency health and protection services. 

WFP reached 1.4 million people in the month of August alone, and has provided food assistance and nutrition support to 2.5 million people since the beginning of the year.