Former Director-General  José Graziano da Silva
An opinion article by FAO-Director General José Graziano da Silva

Starvation is an appallingly cruel death. We have just visited South Sudan, a country long affected by conflict and protracted crisis, and we have seen how famine stalks young children, women, and the elderly in particular. Hunger weakens people to the extent that they cannot fight off even the simplest illness—a common cold can become a death sentence. In South Sudan, this is happening right now.

We met women and children with sunken eyes, struggling to cope with searing hunger in the country’s worst-affected central north. In Ganyiel, we met women like Nyakon who walked through waist-high swamps and ate water-lilies to survive. Those same swamps provide some sanctuary from the on-going fighting in the country where we witnessed our frontline teams working in tandem to save lives and livelihoods. A plane air-dropped food to address urgent needs, while we delivered fishing and vegetable-growing kits to further help families stave off hunger. Our teams are carrying out extraordinarily brave work amid great danger and personal risk to keep people from starving to death.

Tragically, civilians are suffering most from this conflict. Food trucks are blocked. Homes and crops are torched, cattle are stolen. Whole villages have been emptied, and food production has drastically dwindled.

There is only one solution: peace.

There must be a stronger national dialogue and continued international pressure for a political solution to end the conflict, or more people will face famine.

We do not use the word famine lightly. Famine can only be declared when very specific conditions are met: at least 20 percent of families in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; the death rate per day exceeds two adults out of every 10,000 in the population.

Saving lives and livelihoods

Close to 2 million people receive life-saving food and nutrition assistance each month through the work of our organizations. Saving lives today is a critical first step, but we also must go further and enhance people’s ability to provide for themselves and their families. Saving livelihoods is people’s best defense against famine, and there is much that can be done even in the midst of conflict.

One of the few reasons for hope in South Sudan is the rainy season that has just started. It is typically the time of year when most of the country’s food is grown, and it provides the chance to plant fast-growing vegetables and staples such as sorghum.

In some areas, the rains may bring a much-needed lull in fighting as roads become impassable and airstrips unusable. But this makes it difficult for humanitarian workers to move, too. We are racing against the rains to bring life-saving emergency food to those in desperate need before hard-to-reach areas are cut off, and to provide fishing, cereal- and vegetable-growing kits.

The vast majority of people in South Sudan rely on farming and herding. If we can assist them to continue to grow their own food and tend animals, they will be able to defend themselves against the worst ravages of hunger, and recovery will be faster and cheaper. Evidence from the 2011 famine in Somalia and earlier crises shows that it takes as much as a decade before families who lost their land, livestock, and other productive assets can become self-sufficient again.

If the planting season is missed, even more people will be pushed into hunger. This critical window of opportunity is rapidly closing, and the lean season—when people are hungriest—will peak in July.

Now, not later

We have the expertise to provide life-saving food, farming, and fishing support but all parties in the conflict must guarantee the security and safety of our humanitarian teams to deliver.

Leaders in South Sudan must continue a dialogue towards peace. South Sudan is rich in land, water, and hard-working people. With peace, it could be a bountiful country, without peace there will be no food security. “We are tired of this war,” Nyakouth, a mother-of-nine said. “We have been complaining and nobody seems to be listening to us. We hope that God will answer our prayer for peace.”

The international community is listening and has stepped up its financial contributions to support our work since famine was declared. But there remains an enormous gap between needs and current levels of pledges and donations. More must be done urgently to stave off a full-blown catastrophe.

We must not stand by. The children, women, and elderly who are bearing the brunt of this tragedy must not be left behind.