On its third anniversary, South Sudan is teetering on the brink of humanitarian disaster. Without urgent action, some parts of the country face famine as a result of conflict, a poor harvest and high, pre-existing levels of malnutrition and poverty. If all this sounds eerily familiar, it should. In July 2011 similar conditions saw famine strike in Somalia, just as South Sudan gained its independence. It is estimated that more than a quarter of a million people died during this catastrophe, most of them children.
The situation in South Sudan shows the lessons of 2011 have not been learned. Early warnings of disaster in Somalia accumulated for almost a year before famine was eventually declared by the UN. The threat was first explicitly raised by the Famine Early-Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) in March 2011 and again in May. Yet the humanitarian system remained dormant. Had donors and agencies intervened early, they could have prevented the downward spiral into destitution and starvation. The reasons why early warnings did not lead to early action were documented in a major Chatham House report that concluded with numerous recommendations for how programmes, funding and decision-making should be reformed to avoid such a failure ever happening again.
Fast forward to 2014 and head 1,000 miles west, and little seems to have changed. FEWSNET warned of famine in South Sudan in early May, yet official UN data reveals no subsequent increase in funding. If anything, contributions to the South Sudan emergency appeal appear to have slowed, with April, May and June showing markedly less being received than in previous months. With the lean season (when food insecurity peaks) now well underway, the appeal is less than half-funded.
Experience shows that the thing most likely to mobilize emergency funding is not early warning but media coverage, which can lead to pressure from publics for donor governments to act. News of the situation in South Sudan has been muted, however. According to Google Trends, there was no increase in the number of headlines on South Sudan following the famine warning in May for example. Three years ago in Somalia, it was not until famine was declared that the crisis caught the global media’s attention and donors finally responded. By then it was, by definition, too late to avert catastrophe.
Despite these alarming similarities, it is not inevitable that South Sudan will mark its third anniversary with famine. Like all complex forecasts, famine early warnings do not deal in certainties. And, although the window of opportunity for preventive action has probably closed by now and the challenge of reaching communities in the midst of conflict is huge, it is still possible for humanitarian actors to mitigate the worst-case scenario with a concerted and coordinated push to distribute aid and scale-up emergency infant nutrition programmes in the worst-affected areas. But even if famine is avoided, communities in South Sudan will be left weaker, poorer and more vulnerable to the next crisis. The risk will remain.
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