UNITED NATIONS – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Wednesday up to a million people could face famine in conflict-torn South Sudan in the coming months unless the world takes immediate action.
Ban told reporters before meeting with Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union's commissioner responsible for humanitarian aid, that "life and death" issues are facing the world's newest nation — fighting, malnutrition and dire humanitarian conditions.
"Millions are going hungry today — and we are seeing evidence of extremely high levels of malnutrition among hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict — especially women and children," he said.
South Sudan saw massive violence sweep the country in December, when fighting broke out between troops loyal to former vice president Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir. Thousands of people are believed to have been killed, and more than 1 million have fled their homes.
International aid officials have increasingly invoked the word "famine" to describe what South Sudan could face in coming months. The country is extremely poor and most residents survive only on the crops they plant and harvest. Because of the fighting, many residents are not able to plant crops ahead of the coming rainy season.
"Without immediate action, up to a million people could face famine in a matter of months," Ban said in what appeared to be his first warning of possible famine in the country.
On Saturday, the EU, U.N. and United States issued a Call for Action on South Sudan.
"Our message is clear," Ban said. "We need an end to the fighting and a political solution to a conflict which has already taken a heavy toll on civilians; we need the resources to continue providing life-saving assistance and livelihood support; and all parties to the conflict must respect the rights of the people of South Sudan and abide by international humanitarian law."
The EU, U.N. and U.S. said conflict and a funding gap of nearly US$800 million are affecting emergency aid efforts and the approaching rainy season could strain humanitarian operations and limit access to people in need.
"We all celebrated with the world's newest nation when South Sudan became independent," Georgieva said in a statement Saturday. "Less than three years later, we are witnessing a humanitarian disaster of appalling proportions. It is innocent civilians who are paying the highest price for what has happened. We need to stand by them, while doing everything we can to get their leaders to put an end to a conflict that is wrecking lives and livelihoods across South Sudan."
The United States, the leading donor of humanitarian assistance to South Sudan, announced an additional $83 million in assistance on March 25 which raised its total aid package to more than $411 million in 2013 and 2014. The European Commission announced that it will be boosting its assistance by $62 million (€45 million), bringing this year's total to $131 million (€95 million).
"Despite competing demands, we cannot let the people of South Sudan down," Ban said. "Resources are particularly critical now to pre-position life-saving supplies before the peak of the rainy season when most of South Sudan's roads will become impassable."