Without its farmers, South Sudan is close to famine

A woman preparing maize

The theme for this year’s World Food Day is ‘family farming’ but there’s not a lot to celebrate in South Sudan where the spectre of famine looms large. Justus Liku, CARE’s senior advisor on food and nutrition in emergencies, explains why.

Family farms – farms run by, and worked on by, a family – are an important part of rural development. In countries like South Sudan, they play a critical role in providing food security and livelihoods, managing natural resources, and building civil society through farmer organisations.

But 2014 hasn’t been a good year for family farming here in South Sudan.

The conflict that began in December 2013 has disrupted every layer of life of this young nation. According to the UN, 1.4 million South Sudanese have been displaced, and almost half a million people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. The UN is currently hosting more than 99,000 South Sudanese in ‘Protection of Civilian’ sites around the country. Many families have been torn apart, their farms left untended and barren.

South Sudan should not be food insecure

The country is blessed with vast tracts of arable land, an enviable water source in the Nile river, a perfect climate for growing a wide range of crops, and the human resources to tend them. Prior to the current crisis, more than 90% of the country’s estimated 10 million people earned their living from agriculture, mainly through smallholder, family-owned farms producing staple crops like sorghum, and by herding cattle.

But not now....

The spectre of famine is looming large over South Sudan today. Recent figures from the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC), the key tool for monitoring the status of the food crisis in South Sudan, estimate around 1.5 million people are living in food crisis (Phase 3) and food emergency (Phase 4). The outlook for 2015 remains bleak, particularly with the expectation of renewed fighting in the coming dry season.

Farms have been abandoned

Fighting has closed the roads that carried goods, destroyed towns that hosted once vibrant markets, and displaced the people for whom the markets represented a source of both food and livelihoods. Farming families have sold their livestock, or eaten the seeds meant for planting to keep away the gnawing hunger.

A mother prepares boiled sorghum for her family. She said: “This will be the only meal we’ll eat today.” © CARE / Josh Estey

A mother prepares boiled sorghum for her family. She said: “This will be the only meal we’ll eat today.”

Food prices have skyrocketed

In conflict-affected states such as Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei, imports from neighbouring countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan are substituting produce traditionally grown by South Sudanese farming families. The result is an increasing dependency on imports that, if sustained, will further diminish family farms in South Sudan.

World Food Day is an important date for farming communities across the globe – but not in South Sudan.

Without its farmers, markets and transport infrastructure, this country remains perilously close to famine.

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