Originally published to the Huffington Post.

Earl Gast, USAID official photo

Earl Gast, Assistant Administrator for Africa

One year ago, the world welcomed South Sudan to the community of nations after a referendum supported by USAID gave the people of this war-scarred land the opportunity to choose their future through a peaceful, democratic process.

Those of us who watched this process closely knew that South Sudan’s independence would not resolve its longstanding disputes with Sudan, including agreement on their shared border and a key question that has brought the economies of both countries to a standstill — how much should South Sudan pay Sudan to use its pipeline to export oil?

When South Sudan seceded, three-quarters of the greater Sudan’s oil fields went with it, but South Sudan is a landlocked nation with no oil pipeline, and the only existing pipeline it can access is through Sudan. The disagreement over revenue sharing of this key resource has escalated into a war of attrition that is putting the economic well-being of the 44 million people in these two nations at risk.

Because of this dispute, the government of South Sudan decided in January to halt all production of oil, which provided 98 percent of government revenue. As one of the least developed countries in the world, as an oil producer with no oil refining capacity, and as a country where one of the legacies of war is a lack of large-scale farming and mechanized agriculture, South Sudan imports all of its fuel and most of its foodstuffs. This makes the population exceedingly vulnerable to stresses on the nascent economy. Inflation and rising prices can make food, fuel, and other necessities unaffordable for most South Sudanese.

More critically, a humanitarian crisis is escalating in both countries, further exacerbated by the economic crisis. Conflict in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states has severely affected or displaced half a million people, more than 200,000 of whom fled across the border to South Sudan or Ethiopia. Many Sudanese people are trapped in the conflict zone, with little access to food, water, shelter, or medical care. However, the government continues to deny international humanitarian organizations full and unfettered access to affected areas to help the hundreds of thousands still in need of life-saving assistance.

In the face of these critical challenges, I recently traveled to Sudan and South Sudan to evaluate the impact of the economic and humanitarian crises on the people of these two nations and ensure that U.S. assistance is sufficiently flexible to respond. A fuel shortage in South Sudan is creating hardships and hindering our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, particularly in areas near the Sudanese border, where needs are greatest. In Sudan, the government’s announcement that it will reduce food and fuel subsidies has triggered weeks of protests throughout the country.

USAID has a historic role as the lead donor to South Sudan. We are proud of the accomplishments we have helped achieve since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s civil war, including lower infant and child mortality rates and a dramatic increase in primary school enrollment from 20 percent of children in 2005 to 68 percent. We are increasingly concerned about losing ground on these achievements due to the devastating impact of rising food and fuel prices. As more people fall into severe poverty because of the dire economic conditions, school enrollment rates are likely to drop and child mortality rates are likely to increase as families become unable to acquire sufficient food and medical care.

Regardless of the difficulty of resolving the major issues that remain between South Sudan and Sudan, our commitment to the people of these two nations remains steadfast. We are working in close coordination with the international community to prevent duplicating assistance efforts and focus our assistance on local leadership and communities where aid can be best targeted to those who need it most. With careful planning, increased donor coordination, and sustained pressure on both governments to behave responsibly, we may help to minimize the impact of a crisis on the peoples of these two nations. The steps we are taking and the adjustments we are making alone will not prevent a crisis. Only the governments of these two nations have that power.

We appeal to the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to reinvigorate their efforts to resolve their outstanding differences for the good of their citizens.