WASHINGTON - The United States joined the European Union and United Nations to issue an urgent call last weekend for more countries to pledge humanitarian aid for hundreds of thousands in South Sudan the western agencies say are now threatened by famine.
"This morning here in Washington, we saw the world’s unquestioned highest-level humanitarian leaders highlight the urgent needs and the opportunity to help avert a coming famine," USAID administrator Rajiv Shah said as he addressed a hastily convened meeting in Washington, D.C. on the crisis in South Sudan.
Shah said child death rates have spiked in recent weeks in South Sudan and in neighboring countries, where hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have sought refuge from four months of fighting.
Humanitarian leaders have reported tell-tale signs of looming famine in South Sudan, Shah said.
"Antonio Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, told a dramatic and important story of how he's already seen children with red hair and deeply emaciated," both characteristics of kwashiorkor, a form of severe malnutrition, he said.
Conflict mars planting season
The E.U. Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva, said the reason the alarm was raised now, four months into the fighting, is because the conflict is preventing farmers from planting crops.
She issued a stern warning that unless the international community pledges more aid for South Sudan, the country faces a massive famine.
“Because of the fighting, planting is not taking place. In six months, we may be hitting yet another tragic famine unless we act today," she said.
"Raising money throughout the year is important but raising money today, if we want to prevent devastation, is absolutely essential," Georgieva said.
"And this is why the meeting today can for hundreds of thousands of people mean the difference between life or death."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said funding has been coming in, but much more is needed to close a large funding gap.
Donor nations have pledged around $180 million in the past week, including $80 million on Saturday alone.
“We're looking for $282 million just for the next three months," Amos said. "That figure is just for South Sudan. It does not include what we need for the regional dimension of this crisis," Amos said.
Norway to host donor conference
Norway has committed to hold a donor conference next month to try to narrow the long- and short-term funding shortfalls, she said.
"We know that if we work together we can deal with this challenge," Amos said. "But we also know that without improved and significant resourcing now, we face a situation next year where South Sudan is in an even worse situation than it is right now."
The three humanitarian leaders signed a call for action for South Sudan, urging an immediate end to the fighting and calling on government and opposition fighters to allow aid workers unimpeded access to the hundreds of thousands of people in need.
Georgieva announced that the European Commission has pledged an additional $63 million in aid for South Sudan, bringing the E.U's total contribution for this year to $131 million.
In March, the United States pledged an additional $83 million to help South Sudanese forced from their homes, bringing the U.S. contribution to South Sudan for the last two years to $411 million.
A visiting South Sudanese government minister last week called the United States "the midwife of the birth of South Sudan" and said it has invested "big time" in the world's newest nation.
But there is still a large gap to close before pledges to South Sudan reach the $1.27 billion the United Nations has said it needs by June to meet the most urgent needs of increasingly desperate South Sudanese.