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South Sudan Famine Eases, but Millions Still Food-insecure

FILE - People wait to receive food at a World Vision food distribution site in Malualkuel in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan, April 5, 2017.

Famine has eased in the Leer and Mayendit counties of South Sudan's Unity state, but Oxfam America warns that 45,000 people in the two counties and parts of former Jonglei state are still facing famine-like conditions, while 6 million people — half of the country's population — are severely food-insecure.

Noah Gottschalk, senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam America, a nonprofit anti-poverty organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, said that although there have been pockets of improvement, the overall picture remains bleak, judging from the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report

Even though the most severe forms of food insecurity may fall short of a famine designation, "no one would want to live in those types of circumstances," Gottschalk told VOA's South Sudan in Focus on Thursday.

Nearly 4 million South Sudanese have been displaced from their homes since the country's internal conflict began in December 2013. Half are refugees in six nearby countries; the other half are living in camps and other makeshift circumstances inside the country.

The latest IPC report, released this week, said armed conflict continues to disrupt agriculture and markets around the country, making food difficult to obtain.

Gottschalk said the onset of South Sudan's rainy season would make conditions worse by making roads impassable and bringing on waterborne diseases.

FILE - A South Sudanese family waits in the cholera isolation ward of Juba Teaching Hospital in Juba, May 24, 2014.
FILE - A South Sudanese family waits in the cholera isolation ward of Juba Teaching Hospital in Juba, May 24, 2014.

So far, more than 30,000 people in Leer have received the oral cholera vaccine this year. Gottschalk said that controlling illnesses like cholera goes hand in hand with combating food insecurity.

"When people have cholera, there is increased diarrhea and vomiting, which means that even if you are able to access food … you are not absorbing the nutrients, and that means that a malnourished population that has limited access to clean water is especially vulnerable," he said.

It is not just about getting food to people, Gottschalk added. "It is about clean water and sanitation and hygiene."

Gottschalk said he was worried that the end of famine conditions could slow down the response needed to save lives.

"It is important that donors and the aid community, and really, the international community, don't get complacent now, just because there has been this small bit of improvement," he said. "We need to be redoubling our efforts and doing a lot more to make sure people get the assistance they need — and more importantly, that this conflict comes to an end."

The latest IPC projection made the same point. "Should humanitarian assistance be compromised," it said, "the areas could easily slip into famine again."