06/08/2012 04:08 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Deepening Food Insecurity Casts Shadow Over South Sudan's First Birthday

On July 9, the Republic of South Sudan will celebrate its first Independence Day since its secession from the Republic of Sudan in 2011. I recently traveled, first to Juba, the capital, and then to the Aweil West and Aweil North areas of Northern Bahr el Ghazal state -- a region bordering the Republic of Sudan where a staggering 800,000 people live below the poverty line.

In this region, malnutrition rates rise and fall along with the levels of food available pre- and post-harvest. In Aweil West, for instance, fluctuations in child malnutrition rates from harvest to the 'lean season' -- the time preceding the harvest when food supplies are at their lowest -- doubled from 12 percent to 26 percent in November 2011. Given that a rate of 15 percent is considered to be at emergency-level, it is clear that communities in South Sudan are constantly confronting food insecurity, even in times of what they consider to be 'plenty.'

On traveling to one market, I met a woman who told me that they had seen a three-fold increase in prices for their staple food, dura (sorghum). People are eating less food, less often. The food that was available lacked variety -- vegetables were few and far between with the exception of a few small onions. Many of the vegetables were imported. Because they are such a vital source of vitamins and minerals, vegetables, or rather not having vegetables, can have a profound impact on the health and well-being of children.

South Sudan is one of the least developed countries in the world and has little or no infrastructure. To put this in perspective, there are currently less than 75 miles of paved road in the country, which is roughly the size of Texas. Where there is road, it is made of dirt and when the rain comes, 60 percent of them become impassable. Many communities are simply cut-off making key foods harder and more expensive to source. For these communities, importing food is impossible during the rainy season.

The United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 4.7 million people -- half of the population of South Sudan -- will be threatened by food insecurity in 2012. One million of these people will be severely affected. Concern Worldwide is providing life-saving nutrition and primary health care services, as well as livelihood activities that work to foster both food and economic security. To bolster food production, Concern works with communities to improve their farming practices, from using donkeys to increase productivity, to following techniques that prevent crop loss, to ensuring that livestock stay healthy through regular vaccinations, amongst other services. We also distribute seeds to women's groups so that they can start small vegetable gardens to feed and support their families, while earning a small income from selling surplus in local markets.

I was lucky to see some of these gardens firsthand. The women I met were successfully growing tomatoes, cabbage (or sucamawiki, as they call it) and okra. After visiting the gardens, I spoke to about 100 women underneath a very large tree about how the gardens had impacted their lives. Most were cooking the vegetables for their families and selling any surplus for income. One woman told me that her children were no longer as sick as they had been in previous times. This statement strikes at the heart of why nutrition, particularly during early childhood, is so critical. Having greater diversity in her diet was leading to better health for her children.

Despite the progress made by these gardens and other initiatives, the harsh reality is that South Sudan is a country starting at an incredible disadvantage. Instead of facing the task of rebuilding their country, as many new nations do, they must start completely from scratch. The scale of the task at hand is evident in the extreme distances you have to travel between one place and the next, in the fact that only 50 percent of children are in school, and in the stunning statistic that a 15-year-old girl is more likely to die in child birth than finish school in South Sudan.

Despite a relatively calm, ordered, and diplomatically-achieved independence, outstanding challenges and disputes between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan remain. We have seen massive population migrations -- the biggest peacetime movements of people since World War II -- as South Sudanese return home to their nascent country after years living not just in the Republic of Sudan, but also in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the globe. More than 375,000 are expected to have returned to South Sudan from October 2010 to May 2012, according to OCHA. In many cases, the return home has been planned and gradual but for many others, conflict on the border has forced them to flee to South Sudan.

On top of food insecurity, South Sudan must contend with the long shadow these conflicts cast while the world holds its breath to see if they will slide back into war with the Republic of Sudan. For humanitarian organizations, our main concern is having access to those in need so we are able to assist communities on both sides of the border caught in disputed areas.

The scale and breadth of the needs are already distressing.

We saw a dramatic increase in the movement of refugees from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile (in the Republic of Sudan) to Upper Nile and Unity States in South Sudan in May. The refugee population in Yida camp in Unity State has swollen to more than 35,000 people, bringing the number of people who have fled from Upper Nile state alone to 80,000.

If war breaks out between South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan, fewer resources will be available to make the necessary investments that will allow the South Sudanese people to lead fruitful, rewarding lives -- above the poverty line and food secure -- in the new Republic of South Sudan.

Looking back at my recent trip, I am heartened by the commitment that so many of the South Sudanese have to their country. It is my hope that this passion and commitment for South Sudan will translate into the right investments -- ones that boost its economy, build its infrastructure and break the cycle of poverty for its people.

About Concern Worldwide
Concern Worldwide is an international, non-governmental humanitarian organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty, with more than 3,200 personnel working in 25 of the poorest countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Concern Worldwide targets the root causes of extreme poverty through programs in health, education, livelihoods and microfinance, HIV and AIDS, and emergency response, directly reaching more than 8.5 million people. To learn more, visit, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.