South Sudan hunger at its worst since independence

Fighting has forced nutrition staff to withdraw from some areas and their supplies have been looted.

FILE: Young girls carry luggage in a United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) IDP camp on June 20, 2014 in Juba. 20 June marks the World refugee day, according to statistics over 1.3 million people have been displaced from their homes due to the current conflict. Picture: AFP.

NAIROBI - More than 40 percent of South Sudan's 11 million people need food aid, the latest analysis shows, the highest hunger levels recorded in the world's youngest country, where fighting erupted 18 months ago.

Conflict, high food prices and the worsening economy have pushed 4.6 million South Sudanese into hunger, according to the analysis carried out by hunger experts from aid agencies and the government.

The number has almost doubled since the start of the year, and those facing hunger in the northeast African nation include 874,000 children under five, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis showed.

"The lives of vulnerable women and children, who have exhausted all coping mechanisms available to them, are on the line," Jonathan Veitch, United Nations children's fund country representative, said in a statement.

South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, plunged into fighting 18 months ago between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with his former deputy, Riek Machar.

Famine "will become a serious risk" in some areas later this year if aid does not reach those in need, the experts said.

Hunger is worst in the three northern states of Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity, where fighting has forced thousands to flee their homes in recent weeks.

Some 650,000 civilians cannot reach aid, the United nations said. Many are surviving on wild plants like water lilies as food traders cannot risk approaching the front lines.

People hiding in the bush are missing the planting season, which is crucial if they are to have a harvest in August. The country is experiencing its annual 'lean season' when food from the last harvest has run out.

It is also raining, which turns vast swathes of the country into swamps, inaccessible at times even by air.

"Unless humanitarians are given access to deliver lifesaving services to children and to continue prepositioning supplies before roads become impassable during the rainy season, an already fragile situation will become catastrophic," Veitch said.

In parts of Unity State, one in 10 children have severe acute malnutrition, UNICEF said, which means they are likely to die without therapeutic feeding.

Fighting has forced nutrition staff to withdraw from some areas and their supplies have been looted, it said.

Agencies are short of funds because of the many hunger crises facing the world and the waning international interest in South Sudan, where peace talks have virtually stalled.