Crop-Eating Worms, Cattle Disease Add to South Sudan Anguish

  • Agriculture is latest victim of more than three years of war
  • Livestock a vital component of an economy that’s in freefall

A farmer displays the caterpillar larva of a fall armyworm.

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

More than three years of fighting have slashed South Sudan’s oil output and left half its people facing severe food shortages. Now crop-eating caterpillars and livestock disease are hitting the world’s newest nation’s meager other resources.

The fall armyworms, already wreaking havoc elsewhere in Africa, have destroyed vital corn and sorghum crops and grazing land since arriving in South Sudan in June. Meanwhile, seven outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease this year have infected as many as a third of the nation’s 12 million cattle, a linchpin of the rural economy. As clashes between government forces and rebels continue, damage to such key sectors is spreading more misery and may complicate any peacetime rebuilding.

It’s “as if God is punishing South Sudan,” Lual Deng Lual, managing director of the Ebony Center for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in the capital, Juba, said of the outbreaks. “It will definitely be devastating. The situation is already bad and it is just adding fuel to the fire.”

Tens of thousands of people have died and more than 3.5 million others have fled their homes due to the civil war that erupted in December 2013, with both government forces and rebels accused of atrocities. An estimated 6 million people are facing drastic shortfalls in food, although famine is no longer occurring in two northern counties where it was declared by the United Nations in February. Inflation accelerated to 361.9 percent in June.

While South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest crude reserves, fighting near the facilities in the north has curbed output. Last year’s spread of violence to a southern region once known as the country’s breadbasket has limited the tending of crops. More than 80 percent of South Sudanese rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Food Pressure

Livestock makes up more than 30 percent of South Sudan’s gross domestic product, according to the government. Local officials from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said July 28 that food-and-mouth had become endemic, with a string of outbreaks indicating it had spread countrywide, putting pressure on “already fragile food insecurity.”

The outbreak of fall armyworms -- caterpillars that get their name from the large numbers that invade fields and eat leaves and stems -- could affect as much as 166,000 hectares (410,195 acres) of South Sudan’s 664,000 hectares of arable land, according to the Agriculture Ministry. The FAO has said it’s “nearly impossible” to eliminate the pest, which arrived on the continent from the Americas last year.

Deputy Finance Minister Amou Ambrose Thiik said by phone the two threats will “have a very grave impact on the livelihood of the people.” The government and FAO are seeking $1 million from donors to probe the damage from the armyworm outbreak.

‘Devastating Effect’

Foot-and-mouth is a trans-boundary disease the FAO says is one of the most serious threats to food security and the global livestock trade. The Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries said last week that South Sudan is seeking to work with neighbors Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya to monitor cattle that cross borders and tackle the spread.

Other illnesses such as lumpy skin disease and hemorrhagic septicemia have also been reported. Combined, they’re having a “devastating effect” on South Sudan’s livestock-keeping communities, according to the FAO.

“It’s not just the economy but the country as a whole -- the survival of the country -- is at risk,” Lual said of the latest crises.

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