The World Health Organization warns that soaring rates of severe malnutrition, acute hunger, and deteriorating health conditions are threatening the lives and well-being of millions of people in South Sudan with the situation set to worsen as the climate crisis kicks in.
“South Sudan is a country where you see the overlap and compounding impact of conflict, climate crisis, hunger crisis, and disease outbreaks that have been going on for several years,” said Liesbeth Aelbrecht, WHO incident manager for the Horn of Africa. “Three in four South Sudanese need humanitarian assistance this year; two in three are facing crisis levels of hunger,” she said. “And these numbers are only getting worse.”
The United Nations reports 6.3 million South Sudanese are suffering from acute hunger and more than 9 million of the country’s population of 12 million people depend on humanitarian assistance.
As conditions continue to deteriorate, the World Health Organization reports 500,000 more people this year will need international aid. Among the most vulnerable are the children.
Aelbrecht said, “The numbers of children with severe malnutrition needing medical intervention have been higher this year than at any point in the last four years,” adding that almost 150,000 children had been treated for severe acute malnutrition so far this year.
She warned the humanitarian crisis facing South Sudan will worsen with the onset of El Niño, a climate phenomenon that can cause temperatures to rise and excess rains.
“Flooding and hunger and drought will increase hunger even further. But it is also very likely to increase the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria and dengue and water-borne diseases,” she said, adding that malaria is one of the five main causes of death in South Sudan.
Aelbrecht recently returned from a mission to South Sudan, where she visited so-called stabilization centers for severely malnourished children in the capital, Juba, and in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.
Speaking Friday from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to journalists in Geneva, Aelbrecht said she watched doctors trying to resuscitate babies on life support. In one of these centers, she said she saw a baby pass away in her mother’s arms.
“I quote figures. I give you percentages, but behind those figures there are just faces. I am standing there as a bystander and watching this child die of hunger and of preventable diseases,” she said. “Even after doing humanitarian work for 25 years now, it does remain one of the most difficult things to do.”
She said the international community must not act as a bystander but help South Sudan during this time of immense need. Since conflict in Sudan erupted in April, she said there has been a large inflow of refugees and returnees from Sudan, putting an even greater strain on South Sudan’s overstretched health system.
“In fact, one out of four of all the people who had fled Sudan, 1.2 million people who fled Sudan are being hosted now in South Sudan,” she said.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports humanitarian operations in both Sudan and South Sudan are severely underfunded. It says lack of security in these countries is also a huge hindrance to the delivery of aid to the millions in need.
“South Sudan and Sudan are the world’s most dangerous countries for aid workers,” said Jens Laerke, OCHA spokesman.
Of 71 aid worker deaths recorded so far this year, he said 22 were in South Sudan and 19 in Sudan.
“The victims are overwhelming local humanitarians working on the front lines of the response,” he said.