Amid fears ‘South Sudan is imploding,’ UN agencies launch urgent operation to reach remote areas

Children displaced in Jonglei state, South Sudan. Photo: UNICEF/Kate Holt

28 March 2014 – Two United Nations agencies launched today an urgent operation to deliver food, vaccines, nutrition supplements and other vital relief supplies to one of the most isolated areas of conflict-affected South Sudan, as part of a joint response to boost emergency distribution as the crisis escalates.

Using helicopters and air drops, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are now assisting 30,000 people in urgent need in Akobo, in Jonglei State, near South Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. The agencies have set up emergency distribution points for food, health, protection, education and sanitation.

According to a joint press release, Akobo is the first location the two agencies are reaching under the new joint strategy. Fourteen such missions are planned over the next month, seeking to support as many as 250,000 people in remote, conflict-affected communities in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states. Other agencies are expected to join the partnership.

“Children and families in South Sudan are now facing unprecedented suffering - with worrying signs of malnutrition and disease outbreaks," said UNICEF’s Representative in the country, Jonathan Veitch.

“With the rainy season looming we have to seize every opportunity to rapidly deploy teams and life-saving supplies to the hardest to reach. This is how we will avert a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Earlier this month, WFP started a series of urgently needed airdrops of food assistance to remote areas of South Sudan that have been unreachable because of insecurity and other obstacles.

“The conflict…is pushing millions of people further into hunger and complicating efforts to provide relief, and we are enormously concerned that things could get worse,” said WFP Country Director Chris Nikoi.

“We have to act quickly to avert an even worse crisis as the rainy season approaches. The mobile response teams are a swift and flexible approach we have been using to reach as many people as we can with assistance in a tremendously challenging environment,” he said.

They are “reaching more people every day, overcoming severe challenges including looting and continued fighting,” WFP spokesperson, Elisabeth Byrs, told journalists in Geneva, adding that the crisis is impacting food security even in parts of the country not directly affected by fighting, in part because of disruption to trade routes and food markets.

“Working with NGO partners, WFP has reached nearly 500,000 people affected [by the crisis], and plans to assist an additional 275, 000 next month,” she said.

In relatively stable areas, Ms. Byrs said, “WFP is continuing work aimed at improving community resilience, including food for assets projects, ‘Purchase for Progress’ activities benefitting local farmers, and school meals.”

Meanwhile, UNICEF has observed increasing levels of disease outbreaks, measles and polio – with children being among the largest number of the displaced persons and refugees.

Speaking on behalf of UNICEF, Sarah Crowe said “the youngest citizens of the world’s newest country are suffering the most from the rising levels of malnutrition and increasing violence.”

The situation is desperate and is only getting worse. Many young children had to flee for their lives and were separated from their families in the process.

“These children have seen rising levels of violence and their schools are often occupied by warring sides, with enrolment rates dropping significantly,” Ms. Crowe said.

Though cholera is momentarily under control, the rainy season is approaching and the threat looms that parts of the country would become impassable and swamped – rendering relief operations more difficult and expensive, she added.

This week, baskets of supplies, including food, vaccines, hygiene kits, rehydrating salts, and chlorinating tablets went out to remote areas. More will go in the coming weeks to reach as many people as possible before those parts of the country are inaccessible.

South Sudan is imploding but with so many competing crises around the world, it is getting scant media attention.

Ms. Crowe said “the international community has a special obligation to South Sudan as it is a new, young country.”

As data is difficult to come by, and Ms. Crowe could not speak on the situation of child soldiers but said, that “at the very least, 83 cases have been verified in observations by the United Nations, and the numbers are likely to be much higher than that.”


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