As voting in southern Sudan’s independence referendum enters its final days, relief officials say at least 1 million people will continue to need food assistance despite an improvement in food security over the past year.
It is midday at a large sports field in a suburb of Juba. World Food Program workers are unloading sacks of cereal and boxes containing tins of cooking oil.
Family representatives gather in the shade of a large mango tree and wait for their ration cards to be processed.
Some 900 people in this neighborhood are to receive three months of food assistance. which includes about 50 kilograms of a grain, beans, cooking oil and salt. The families must supplement these rations as best they can.
The United Nations announced Wednesday that the number of people needing food assistance this year is expected to fall to one-half the level of last year.
They credit a six year-old agreement between north and south that has brought peace and this past week’s referendum on independence.
WFP Spokesman Peter Smerdon said if the referendum and its aftermath go smoothly, the number of people in need is expected to peak at 1.4 million in the middle of this year.
"The worst-case scenario is that the number will increase gradually from now until April or May or June, and we’ll see the number go as high as 2.7 million," said Smerdon. "But that is still lower than the 3 million people who needed assistance in 2010."
Smerdon said aid agencies also are distributing 15 days of traveling rations to returning southern Sudanese to help them reach their final destinations.
They and the government hope to avoid seeing large returnee camps develop near urban centers because these tend to perpetuate aid dependence and strain local communities.
There are fears, though, that the food situation could worsen due to rising food prices. Already, some foreign traders have left the region fearing violence after the referendum. And this comes as the returning southern Sudanese are increasing demand for food.
Smerdon said, however, the biggest worry is a return to war.
"Conflict’s the biggest one (concern). If there are new displacements, if there are places we can’t deliver assistance to because of conflict, obviously, the situation could deteriorate quite quickly," said Smerdon.
Officials say nearly 150,000 southern Sudanese of an estimated 2 million have returned from the north in the past two months. They have pre-positioned enough food to help feed 1 million returnees over six months, if need-be.