A few weeks ago, my office instructed a vessel carrying 21,000 tons of American-grown sorghum destined to serve hungry people in South Sudan to divert from its Djibouti destination and discharge its cargo in Port Sudan instead. That vessel arrived and offloaded last week.
While the food was originally destined to travel for weeks by road from Djibouti to Gambella, Ethiopia, and then be airlifted or air-dropped into remote areas of South Sudan, a recent agreement between Sudan and South Sudan brings the possibility of a more hopeful scenario.
After almost a year of negotiation, the U.N. World Food Program secured agreement from both governments, as well as opposition groups in South Sudan, to facilitate safe passage of this grain to hungry people in South Sudan. Saving both time and expense, it will be trucked or shipped by barge across the border from Sudan to South Sudan to meet immediate food needs and be pre-positioned in remote areas for use in the coming months. If the two governments follow through on their commitments, the opening of this corridor will help to stave off hunger in a new country, whose hopes for growth and prosperity were dashed by ruinous fighting between the government and armed opposition groups one year ago.
South Sudan is the most food-insecure place in the world. Six months ago, after visiting, I laid out five key actions that USAID was taking to avert hunger and famine in South Sudan. One of them was to draw on the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust (BEHT), a seldom-used fund that USAID taps when unanticipated global needs outstrip food aid budgets, to procure additional food for South Sudan. Thanks to this trust, 50,000 tons of U.S. food – including the 21,000 tons recently offloaded in Port Sudan, are being used to respond to the hunger crisis in South Sudan.
The scale-up has enabled emergency care for more than 76,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, and humanitarian workers have reached roughly 3.5 million vulnerable and displaced people with aid since January. Throughout 2014, conflict and bad weather forced the international community to rely on expensive airlift operations to move food and other supplies into remote areas of the country – operations that are roughly 8 times more costly than serving people by road. While extraordinarily costly in terms of expense, lifesaving aid has helped avert famine – for now.
The question is, what happens next?
Will the United States’ BEHT food make it safely to its intended destination, as planned? Will people already worn down by a year of war be reached with lifesaving aid and recovery support? Or will renewed fighting move South Sudan into a deeper downward spiral?
Sadly, the dry season, which typically lasts from December to April, is not only a time for recovery but has in past years also been a time for renewed conflict. Already we have reports that fighting has begun anew, adding to the suffering experienced by the nearly 1.9 million displaced people.
The international community is already overstretched due to the scale and gravity of the crisis and other humanitarian emergencies worldwide. The United States has provided more than $720 million in response to the crisis, including more than $339 million for food and nutrition assistance alone.
The future of South Sudan is in the hands of the combatants. This humanitarian crisis is man-made, as will be its resolution. The best way to avert a future famine is for the combatants to stop fighting, so that ordinary South Sudanese people can plant crops, markets can reopen and communities can begin to recover.