04/09/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

South Sudan on the Brink of Famine Demands Urgent Action

On the first of April, I walked with great sadness through the United Nations compound in Juba, capital of South Sudan, the world's newest nation, now in free fall after a hopeful beginning three years ago. The compound is sheltering more than 21,000 displaced people who fled to safety after a spasm of violence in mid-December killed untold thousands.

I talked with 23-year-old Mary who told me how she had hid with her husband -- a civil servant in the new government -- and their three children as they watched neighbors being killed on the street before running to the compound for safety. I spoke with Elizabeth, a tall young woman who had taught school before she came to the camp. Together we noticed a few toddlers playing perilously close to a large pool of standing, fetid water from the first rains, a harbinger of the flooding now here.


The people of South Sudan face a spiral of conflict, displacement, and hunger that this fragile, young country can ill afford. More than one million people have been forced to leave their homes and the numbers keep growing. Almost 70,000 people are sheltering in crowded UN compounds around the country that sprung up overnight and were not built to house tens of thousands of civilians. Many of these people can literally see their homes over the compound walls but remain too terrified to return, fearing they will be targeted by government or opposition forces and killed.

More than 800,000 people are displaced and dispersed in hard to reach areas, and a quarter of a million more have fled South Sudan for refuge in neighboring countries. Because of the conflict, markets are disrupted, planting season is in danger of being missed, and massive displacement is a burden for host communities. The ability of more than a million people to cope is being greatly eroded. Without fast and sustained aid, there is looming potential for nearly half the country to teeter into famine over the next year -- and children under five are already falling quickly into severe malnutrition.

Since the outbreak of violence in December, USAID's Disaster Assistance Response Team has been working with UN and NGO partners to direct a full-throttle U.S. response to enable food, water, sanitation, and health assistance to reach the most vulnerable. While in Juba, I announced an additional $83 million in humanitarian assistance to support these urgently needed relief efforts for South Sudanese displaced within South Sudan and for those who have fled to Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, bringing U.S. humanitarian assistance to $411 million over the last two years.

With the rainy season already upon us, there is little time to move life-saving assistance to those most in need. Even in the best of times, South Sudan presents a complex logistical challenge. Now, we need to use all possible avenues for reaching people: rivers, roads, air, and moving across borders.

Instead, leadership of both the government and the opposition have thus far refused to stop fighting and are unable to reach agreement since the violence erupted in December. Aid workers and cargoes are routinely delayed at checkpoints and where borders are open, caravans of trucks carrying relief supplies are stopped by fighting. Permission to use the Nile, the most efficient way to reach many of the suffering South Sudanese, has been denied until recently, costing precious time to save lives.

The United States has long supported South Sudan's journey to independence. We remain committed to the people of South Sudan, who fought hard for their vision of a peaceful future. The leadership on both sides of the conflict must do everything in their power to enable immediate and unconditional access for UN and humanitarian organizations to ensure that this urgently needed assistance reaches those in need across all areas of South Sudan. They must act now to lead their country toward peace.