Hunger Stalks World’s Youngest Capital as War Nears 4th Yearby
South Sudan’s economic crisis hits Juba as families cut meals
Half of city’s households fear for food supply, UN agency says
As South Sudanese homemaker Sarah Kiden stirs a boiling pan of lentils, she remembers when her five children could count on more than one meal a day.
For the first time since the world’s newest country gained independence in 2011, hunger is stalking its capital, Juba, because of renewed violence and a deepening economic crisis. With her clothes-seller husband earning 200 South Sudanese pounds ($2.74) a day and food prices rising eight-fold in the past year, 32-year-old Kiden has to feed her family on a daily pot of stew and a few pieces of round flat-bread. The United Nations estimates 9 out of 10 families in the city are cutting back on meals.
“When we used to have breakfast and lunch then supper, all was good,” Kiden said in an interview at her family’s one-room shack in Juba’s Munuki neighborhood. “Now the money can’t buy all those.”
Civil war in oil-producing South Sudan has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced 3 million people from their homes since December 2013 in one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The UN World Food Programme said last week that more than half of all households in Juba don’t have access to enough food, more than double the figure in 2015. Nationwide almost a third of the country’s about 11 million people face severe food shortages, with hunger levels expected to double next year.
Violence and falls in both output and the global price of crude, South Sudan’s almost sole source of revenue, have contributed to economic decline that saw inflation surge to 835.7% in October, the highest rate in the world. The currency has tumbled from 18 to the dollar in December 2015, to about 73 now. Increasing unemployment has slashed families’ earnings and forced them to cut back on buying food, according to the WFP.
The civil war started in the capital as clashes between fighters loyal to different factions of the ruling party developed into ethnically targeted massacres. After a brief lull, a transitional government seeking to end the war was thrown into turmoil in July with renewed fighting in Juba between factions loyal to the president and vice president that left at least 270 people dead.
The bloodshed was followed by unrest in southern states, including a spate of attacks by unidentified gunmen on a highway that’s vital for importing goods from neighboring Uganda, South Sudan’s largest trading partner.
The U.S. State Department on Monday expressed alarm over violence in the Equatoria region, warning it could “quickly spiral out of control.” More than 1,900 homes have been destroyed in Central Equatoria since September while the South Sudanese government has mobilized at least 4,000 “irregular ethnic militia,” increasing the risk of more clashes and attacks on civilians, deputy department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Already suffering from rising costs, Kiden, the Juba homemaker, said food in local markets was scarce because of July’s violence, which brought the capital to a standstill for five days. At first, her family was forced to skip one daily meal, then two.
The WFP said Dec. 1 that spreading conflict and insecurity “have cut off trade routes and continue to impede commercial imports.” The violence has also restricted households’ access to farm land, in turn worsening the availability of food.
At Al Hafyan bakery in Juba’s Nimra Talata neighborhood, manager Paul Pitia said he’s cut bread production by half in the past year because the cost of flour has surged. At the same time, families are buying as little as a third of the bread they did before.
South Sudan’s government is working on initiatives to fight hunger, including helping business communities import food, working with humanitarian organizations and boosting security to encourage agricultural production, Deputy Information Minister Akol Paul Kordit said by phone.
“Consumers are not buying much,” said Pitia, the baker. “There is no money in their hands.”