On 20 February 2017, South Sudan and the United Nations declared famine in parts of former Unity State, warning that it could spread rapidly without further action. More than 100,000 people are currently affected following civil war and economic collapse. The World Food Programme reported that 40% of the South Sudanese population (4.9 million people) needed food urgently. U.N. officials said President Salva Kiir Mayardit was blocking food deliveries to some areas.
In addition, parts of South Sudan have not had rain in two years. According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Representative Serge Tissot, “Our worst fears have been realised. Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive. The people are predominantly farmers and war has disrupted agriculture. They’ve lost their livestock, even their farming tools. For months there has been a total reliance on whatever plants they can find and fish they can catch.”
South Sudan suffered the 1998 Sudan famine before its independence, but no famine had been formally declared anywhere in the world during the six years prior to 2017. There have been warnings of imminent famine in Yemen, Somalia, and the northeastern part of Nigeria, but the formal declaration requires that the following criteria be met:
20% of households suffer extreme food shortages.
30% of the population suffers extreme malnutrition.
At least 1 per each 5,000 inhabitants dies per day.
A February 20 update of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) found that 4.9 million South Sudan residents, 40% of the population, were in need of “urgent food, agriculture, and nutrition assistance”. The report had surveyed 23 countries, of which 14 exceeded the emergency action threshold of 15% acute malnutrition. The World Food Programme carried out relief operations throughout the war, mitigating the risk of famine in other areas including the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state. Bahr el Ghazal had been the region most severely affected in the 1998 famine, when it was struck by a two-year drought, a ban on humanitarian airdrops, restrictions on movement of displaced persons, confiscation of cattle and destruction of food stores.
A 2016 UN report described the former Unity State as the site of continuous fighting throughout the civil war because it has “great economic and symbolic importance because of its vast oil resources and also as a predominantly Nuer state, in a conflict that has pitted the two dominant tribes, Dinkas and Nuers, against each other”. Looting and burning in Unity State and displacement of its inhabitants in fighting over oil reserves also occurred in the Second Sudanese Civil War in the years leading up to the 1998 Sudan famine. It is estimated that in 1998, 12,000 people starved in the Block 5A area out of 240,000 total, with another 160,000 forcibly displaced. Instability is a major reason for the low oil production in South Sudan since 2012.