South Sudan: Protracted Conflict at Root of Nutrition Crisis

Nicolas Peissel/MSF

JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN/NEW YORK, FEBRUARY 21, 2017—The protracted conflict in South Sudan's Mayendit and Leer counties is leading to extremely high levels of malnutrition, as people are repeatedly forced to flee their homes to take shelter in remote areas, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.

In January, MSF community health workers encountered very high levels of malnutrition among children in the areas of Dablual and Mirniyal in northern Mayendit county. Twenty-five percent of patients under five years old had global acute malnutrition, including 8.1 percent with severe acute malnutrition.

"One quarter of the children that we have consulted in our clinics are malnourished, and almost a tenth are in a severe condition," said Nicolas Peissel, MSF project coordinator. "These figures are extremely worrying."

MSF has launched an emergency response, expanding its regular mobile clinics in the area over the past week to treat malnutrition.

Due to the tense security situation in the area, it is currently impossible for MSF teams to open a hospital or even to refer patients to another health facility, as doing so would endanger both patients and medical staff. In such conditions, providing health care is a major challenge, even more so because people are constantly moving from one place to another in search of safety. 

"The extreme level of violence has had a severe impact on people's ability to meet basic needs such as safe drinking water, food supplies, shelter and health care," Peissel said. "People have lost everything and struggle every day to survive."

One local woman arrived at an MSF clinic with her one-year-old twins, both of whom are malnourished. She gave the following account:

"In October and November we were forced to run away from our village three times to hide in the bush. We learned to listen for the noise of the armed men's cars and tanks, and grabbed whatever we could before running away. The armed men shot at us and looted our homes. I ran with my twins in my arms and my four-year-old daughter ran beside me. Sometimes we saw people drop to the ground as they ran after being shot, or throw their belongings away because they could not run fast enough. We hid in the bush until nighttime and returned when the soldiers had gone. Every time this happened, we came home to less. Our cattle, goats and chickens gone; then our crops; and finally our houses looted and burned."

A few weeks later, her family made the decision to leave their home and seek shelter on an island in the swamplands. During the 17-hour journey, they survived on swamp water and the little food they could carry with them.

"People are on the move because they are constantly fleeing violence, searching for a safe refuge for their families or simply looking for resources," said Peissel. "If they hear about a food distribution, for instance, they will travel in that direction. So we need to constantly adjust our medical activities to the movements of population." 

Prospects for the next few months are grim, according to Peissel, as the ongoing dry season is likely to make food even harder to obtain.

"If people cannot find a secure place to live, with decent access to safe drinking water, food, shelter and health care, it is very unlikely that the situation will improve for this population," he said.

Read More: Providing Care to People on the Move in South Sudan