In South Sudan, a mother kisses her baby, who is suffering from severe acute malnutrition with complications, including tuberculosis. Photo: UNICEF/Sebastian Rich

LAGOS, Nigeria

The U.N. is racing to raise over $4.4 billion by the end of March to avert more deaths across Africa and the Middle East as more than 20 million people face severe food shortages.

While people in Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria are going without food, nowhere has been harder hit than South Sudan, where war, economic collapse and an impending drought have put hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation.

“The situation is dire. Millions of people are barely surviving in the space between malnutrition and death, vulnerable to diseases and outbreaks, forced to kill their animals for food and eat the grain they saved for next year’s seeds,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Since 2013, the number of South Sudanese citizens who have fled to neighboring countries of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya has hit 1.5 million, making it Africa’s largest refugee crisis and the world’s third largest after Syria and Afghanistan. For those who have remained in South Sudan, 100,000 people face immediate starvation.

Children are disproportionately affected, with over one million in the country food insecure. And the risk is rising. The number of South Sudanese citizens at risk of starvation is expected to peak at 5.5 million this summer. The northern regions of Bahr el Ghazal and Unity State, known for agriculture, are home to highest number of citizens affected by famine.

In Unity State, sustained conflict from April to September of 2015 resulted in what some are calling the most destructive campaign of South Sudan’s civil war. The division of Unity into three smaller states and the resulting ethnic tension between the community’s Nuer and Dinka tribes has lead to a disruption of farming communities, destruction of markets and the forced migration of over 50,000 households.

According to The New York Times, both the government and the rebels have attacked humanitarian convoys and warehouses delivering aid to the hardest-hit areas in South Sudan. Organizations like World Food Programme have resorted to airdropping food in communities that need them, but many residents have been forced to supplement inconsistent food deliveries by eating wild plants, such as water lilies.

Assistance from the international community cannot come fast enough. In a joint statement delivered in February, Guterres noted that only $90 million has been received by the organization so far. In February, the European Commission announced $87 million in emergency aid to South Sudan, and the U.K has pledged to make $125 million available to South Sudan between 2017 and 2018.

Despite the effort, the U.N. is still nowhere near its goal. With a proposed plan by U.S. President Donald Trump to cut back on foreign aid, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria will be among those nations that suffer the steepest consequences. Last year, the United States alone contributed $6.4 billion in humanitarian aid, making it one of the world’s largest donors. This year, it is still unclear what role the United States will play in alleviating this imminent tragedy.

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Ashley Okwuosa
Ashley Okwuosa is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria.