OSLO - Delegates from 41 donor nations began gathering in the Norwegian capital Monday for a conference to raise funds to avert famine in South Sudan.
The conference marks the second time in five months that the international community is being asked to give money to address what a U.S. official who is attending the conference said is, "along with Syria, probably the largest, most significant crisis we're facing in the world right now."
Jeremy Konyndyk, director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the United States will make a "very substantial contribution" at the conference on Tuesday, and will press other donor nations to do the same to close a large funding gap for South Sudan.
Failure to help South Sudan - and failure on the part of the warring sides in the country to allow aid to reach people who need it - will likely lead to famine, Konyndyk said.
"We are absolutely seeing conditions that, if left on their current trajectory, would lead toward famine in the next, let’s say, six months," Konyndyk told South Sudan in Focus before leaving for Oslo.
"We can mitigate this if we are given the cooperation by the fighting forces that humanitarians need in order to avert that crisis." He said if a famine does hit South Sudan, the fault would lie with government and opposition forces who have been at war since mid-December.
"A famine is a rare thing... Apart from the famine in Somalia a few years ago, there hadn’t been a famine declared in Africa in many, many years, and not in Sudan and South Sudan since the '90s," Konyndyk said.
"This is not a common occurrence. It is a really extraordinary and outrageous occurrence and it’s been driven by very irresponsible behavior by both parties to this conflict," he said.
Less than half of UN funding requirement met
Donors have pledged $590 million for humanitarian assistance in South Sudan -- just 45 percent of the $1.3 billion the United Nations said in January was needed for the country.
As the fighting has dragged on it has claimed thousands of lives, displaced more than a million people and left about four million people facing food insecurity. The United Nations recently increased the funding requirement to $1.8 billion.
Toby Lanzer, the South Sudan coordinator for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called the conference a last chance to avert famine in South Sudan.
"Insufficient funding coupled with fighting along the main access routes has severely affected the delivery of aid. Since January, out-patient therapeutic feeding programmes reached some 228 locations; before the onset of the crisis, 336 locations could be reached," OCHA said in a statement.
"If nothing is done, the situation could quickly unravel, bringing the number of displaced to 1.5 million. One out of two South Sudanese could be displaced, sick or starving by December, 2014. To prevent this, humanitarian agencies need adequate funding fast," the OCHA coordinator said.
'Money not enough' to avert disaster
Konyndyk said before he left for the conference that "money will not be enough to address this crisis."
"It is incumbent on the parties to this conflict, to the government in South Sudan and to the armed opposition, to do everything they possibly can to enable humanitarian aid," Konyndyk said.
"The donor and humanitarian communities... can give as much money as is needed, we can put in as much humanitarian response capacity as is needed, but if the fighting continues and the obstacles to humanitarian aid that we’ve seen out of both sides, but particularly the government, continue, we will not be able to prevent the massive crisis that will arrive," he said.
Konyndyk said while opposition forces have "not been blameless - they have looted, they have targeted humanitarian supplies and actors from time to time - in general, we’ve seen that the government has put up more obstacles than the opposition has."
Both sides agreed in January to allow aid agencies unimpeded access to people in need around South Sudan, and renewed that commitment early this month.
Konyndyk said South Sudanese Foreign Affairs Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, who is leading the government delegation to Oslo, pledged that the government will allow aid agencies "immediate and unconditional access" to people in need in South Sudan.
At #SouthSudanConf in Oslo. SSudan Foreign Minister pledges govt will enable "immediate and unconditional access" for humanitarians.— Jeremy Konyndyk (@JeremyKonyndyk) May 19, 2014
Marial also said he is hopeful the UN goal of $1.8 billion in funding for South Sudan will be met.
Hussein Maar Nyuot, who is representing the opposition at the conference, said his side is also committed to ensuring that aid gets through to the people who need it.
"We want humanitarian services to go to our people without obstruction," he said, adding that people in parts of South Sudan controlled by the opposition should be "saved equally, like people who are in the government-controlled areas.”
Konyndyk agreed. The government has "an obligation to all of their citizens, not just citizens in areas that they control," he said.
Four million face food insecurity
The United Nations says around four million people in South Sudan face food insecurity, and hundreds of thousands of children in the three states hardest hit by the fighting - Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile - are at imminent risk of death and disease.
Konyndyk said the United States has made clear to both sides that they need to stop harassing aid workers and looting supplies.
Marial assured donors that their money will be used for humanitarian purposes, but also insisted that the government should be involved in its disbursement.
"The government is not saying, 'Put it into a government account.' No. But... the government must be in the know of how these funds are used,” he said.
Nyuot said that the international community should trust the two sides to disburse the funds, even though they have not yet made a durable peace.
"The government and us, we are partners in this together with the international community," he said.
"There is no way that any party will be left out," he said.