Wars over Oil and Land Fuel Food Crisis in South Sudan

Posted on March 15, 2012

Originally published in The National:

On January 28, South Sudan shut down oil production, the source of 98 per cent of the government’s revenue. Business people grew concerned about their investments in Juba, and diplomats worried about how the oil shutdown will affect the unstable relationship between Juba and Khartoum.

Nearly two month later, oil talks show no signs of reaching a resolution. Meanwhile, conflict in the border region is heating up. Sudan has been accused of using “Darfur-like” tactics against civilians in South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. Perhaps the most troubling outcome of the oil shutdown and border conflict is their exacerbation of South Sudan’s food insecurity.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is on the brink of a food crisis. Roughly 4.7 million people could become food insecure in 2012, according to the UN World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organization. The oil shutdown, combined with already high food prices, a poor harvest and violent conflict, have formed a perfect storm.

In the last few weeks, the humanitarian situation has quickly deteriorated. “The writing is on the wall,” said a World Food Programme representative at a recent food security and nutrition working group meeting in Nairobi.

Food prices were at record highs before the oil shutdown. In May 2011, prior to South Sudan’s independence, the Sudanese army occupied Abyei, a contested area between the two countries, and shut the border. Since then, all food that is not produced locally must be trucked in from neighbouring countries such as Uganda. Currently, the price of sorghum, a staple food, is between 45 per cent and 250 per cent higher than its five-year average.

As the oil shutdown continues, prices will increase even more. Transport is approximately 30 per cent of the price of food, and fuel prices are on the rise.

Local food supplies, which might have helped cushion the blow of high imported food prices, have been affected by a below average harvest during the 2011-12 season. There was poor rainfall at the beginning of the season, and unrest in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile prevented many people from planting. Last year’s cereals production was estimated at 562,000 metric tonnes, which meets only 52 per cent of the country’s national cereals requirement.

This shortfall could be exacerbated by an influx of people from Sudan within the next two months. There is an April 8 deadline for the roughly 500,000 South Sudanese in Sudan to return home or seek legal status in Sudan. About 120,000 people have registered their intention to return with UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, but they have not yet left Sudan. Relief agencies say that they do not have the capacity to deal with an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In fact, relief agencies are struggling to accommodate South Sudanese who are displaced due to political conflict between the Sudanese government and the SPLM-North, a rebel group. The conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile have displaced over 400,000 people, according to the UN. The Sudanese government has denied aid agencies access to the two states. On February 18, it signed an agreement with the SPLM-North to allow aid agencies into the area, but it has a history of not honouring such agreements. Princeton Lyman, the US special envoy to Sudan, said last week that about 500,000 people in the two states may face “emergency conditions bordering on famine”.

In the best-case scenario, international aid agencies will be allowed into South Kordofan and Blue Nile. However, those two states are not the only places in the region facing hunger and food shortages. International relief agencies need approximately $200 million (Dh734million) in the next three months to provide food assistance and agriculture support. This funding would provide seed and fertiliser to 160,000 households, food assistance to 1.2 million households to prevent them from selling productive assets, and the protection of 2.7 million animals.

But funding must be allocated and dispersed before May. After that, the rains begin, and much of South Sudan will be inaccessible.

In the long term, South Sudan has the potential to become a breadbasket. About 90 per cent of its land is suitable for cultivation. But few people have the agriculture knowledge to engage in more than subsistence production. The United States and the European Union are making significant investments in agriculture development in South Sudan, but the government allocated only 0.9 per cent of its budget to agriculture in 2011.

To avoid future food crises, the government of South Sudan needs to increase its agriculture budget allocation to at least 10 per cent. To avoid the looming food crisis, international relief agencies need immediate funding to protect South Sudan’s 4.7 million most vulnerable people.


Posted in: The National