South Sudan: We Must Not Miss This Opportunity to Save Lives

05/20/2014 05:08 am ET | Updated Jul 19, 2014
  • Toby Lanzer UN Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel based in Dakar, Senegal

On 9 May, South Sudanese leaders signed an 'Agreement to Resolve the Crisis' that has gripped their country for the past five months. By committing to an end to the fighting, an inclusive national dialogue and to ensure aid agencies can access people who desperately need help, the leaders recognized what the people want most: peace. While optimism must be tempered by the continued small clashes we have seen so far, the agreement is a crucial first step.

But it is not a panacea for the problems the ordinary people of this country still face. Over the past five months, over 1.3 million people have been displaced from their homes. 3.7 million people are in the acute or severe stages of food insecurity. 4.9 million people are in immediate need of humanitarian aid. By the end of 2014, over 6 million people in South Sudan -- half of the population -- will be displaced, starving or dead. The numbers appear staggering. The reality is much more so.

And this reality will not change overnight, even if the agreement holds. The fighting has continued deep into the planting season, jeopardizing this year's harvest. Lives have been devastated, livelihoods have been lost, markets have been destroyed and traders have fled. Recent food security surveys have raised alarm bells -- famine is likely in conflict-affected states in the coming months. It's easy to ignore these signs, but we must not miss this opportunity to save lives.

Malnutrition among children has doubled since January, threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. An estimated 223,000 children will suffer from acute malnutrition, and 50,000 of them, mainly in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states, could die if treatment is not available. Access to basic health care has just about disappeared. Scores of health facilities have been destroyed or looted in attacks, many health workers have fled, and some displaced people have been compelled to cross conflict frontlines in a desperate search for treatment. The crisis is likely to cause more preventable deaths unless there is peace and the aid operation gears up quickly.

Aid agencies are working hard to alleviate the enormous suffering caused and prevent the loss of more lives by mounting a nuts and bolts relief operation to save lives, prevent a famine, and avert the loss of another generation. We are focusing on food and livelihoods, preventing and treating malnutrition, providing emergency health care, helping people get potable water and sanitation, giving shelter, and protecting civilians. We are also helping children and women cope with the scars of war: the most unthinkable crimes which have shattered their lives.

This week, aid agencies and donors from the world's capitals gathered in Oslo. I have one simple message for them: The Kiir-Machar agreement is not a silver bullet, but it opens a window of opportunity. And the time has come for all donors to scale up.

An end to the conflict would allow people to move around in greater safety, to sow in what remains of the planting season, and to take better care of themselves in the coming months. It would also allow for UN and humanitarian agencies to better deliver relief to people most in need wherever they are. The parties must live up to their promises, and the international community must hold them to those promises. At the same time, the world's donors must unite behind the people of South Sudan, and provide the support they so desperately need to survive and eventually rebuild their lives and, ultimately, their nation. It is not too late to save this generation of South Sudanese.