The complex crisis in South Sudan, explained

Help South Sudanese children and families escape violence and gain food security through our East Africa Emergency Appeal.


Written 2014


Erin Joyce, a member of World Vision Australia’s Humanitarian & Emergency Affairs team explains some of the complexity of the crisis facing South Sudan, the world’s youngest country.

What’s happening in South Sudan?

On 15 December 2013, conflict broke out in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, among members of the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The fighting, between those who supported President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and recently ousted Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, has sparked a major humanitarian crisis. The violence has rapidly escalated since it began and has spread to other parts of the country, leaving more than 1.35 million people displaced and a staggering 4.9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance (OCHA). To give some context, if we combine the populations in WA, SA, NT and Tasmania, this still doesn’t make up the entire numbers in need in South Sudan. The scale is simply extraordinary.

What is the direct impact on children, and other vulnerable groups, that are caught up in this situation?

The conflict and subsequent displacement leaves children and other vulnerable groups such as women, people living with disabilities and the elderly at great risk. Children have become separated from their families when fleeing the violence leaving them unprotected from abuse, exploitation and neglect. Unable to flee quickly from the violence, people with limited mobility are often more likely to suffer injuries or be killed. Their situation also makes it far more challenging to access basic needs such as food and water, even if they do manage to reach the relative safety of a UN compound. Rates of gender based violence also increase during times of conflict. 

Keeping family units together is one of the best forms of prevention against violence against women and children, and also against the recruitment of children as soldiers. World Vision is running family tracing and reunification projects to try to get families back together. We have also established safe spaces for children to play in a structured environment. Considerations on how to protect vulnerable people and restore their dignity have also been integrated into World Vision’s food, water and nutrition projects.

Hunger in Africa

To make matters more complex, experts are also very concerned about the food security of South Sudan. It’s now almost 30 years since the devastating food crisis in Ethiopia which is estimated to have killed over 400,000 people from 1983-85. Now, just short of three years since its jubilant independence celebrations, Ethiopia’s neighbour South Sudan is teetering on the brink of its own devastating food and nutrition crisis. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is extremely concerned about the food security of more than three million people. And that number is set to increase.

Why are there still food crises in African countries, specifically South Sudan?

While the causes of food insecurity in Ethiopia in the 1980s were very different to South Sudan, this situation is incredibly disheartening. After decades of suffering, the lives of the people of South Sudan were slowly starting to improve. Data was showing us that food insecurity was decreasing, the number of children in school was increasing, and malnutrition rates were dropping. In fact, harvests were up by over 20% in 2013 (FAO). Now, due to the recent conflict and displacement, so much of the hard work of local communities and humanitarian agencies is being reversed and experts believe the situation will continue to decline over coming months.


Unfortunately, people fleeing the violence in South Sudan have had to leave their farms and animals behind. The planting season, which is meant to be taking place right now, is being missed, so come harvest time, any potential yields will be very small and less food will be available. It also means any gains households have made over recent years, in the form of savings or food stores, will be lost. The extreme violence has also forced people to flee their homes quickly, running into the bush without anything except the clothes on their backs. They have no means of income and therefore, are incredibly vulnerable even when they do find physical safety.

Lack of income means lack of access to markets to buy food. Staple food prices often rise when trade is disrupted and in some areas we are seeing increases by up to 61% in the prices of commodities such as sorghum (FAO). The conflict has also meant many markets have either shrunk in size or disappeared. Sellers do not want to, or physically cannot travel to, areas which are insecure, so even if families do have money to buy food, the food may not be available to buy.

It is believed that all these factors combined will leave an estimated 7 million at risk and in need of food aid. This is more than the entire population of Victoria.

Top left: Children queue for the breakfast porridge World Vision is handing out in Kakuma refugee camp. PIcture: World Vision/Joseph Mathenge; Top right: A child looks into a classroom window at a school in Juba, South Sudan. Fighting in the country has forced thousands of children out of schools. Picture: Nigel Marsh; Centre: Displaced children outside a church compound where they sought refuge. Picture: World Vision; Bottom left: Nyanut and her daughter wait on a bus to leave Juba, South Sudan. Picture: World Vision; Bottom right: These young girls carry water into the Protection of Civilians (POC) area. Picture: World Vision/Michael Arunga.

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Could this turn into something like Ethiopia, 30 years ago?

Whilst famine has not been declared right now in South Sudan, there are definitely fears that if crops are not planted and the fighting does not stop, the current situation will continue to seriously decline in the months ahead. As mentioned above, famine is not only due to the availability of food, but also peoples’ access to food. Poor infrastructure in the country and the onset of the rainy season (which washes away roads and floods huge areas of the country) already present their own challenges in making food accessible and the conflict is a further obstacle. Humanitarian organisations such as World Vision continue to help provide and move food around the country, but are restricted by the fighting. If the situation does not improve, then there are predictions that many people, including children, could die of hunger and related diseases.

Where are people relocating to when they leave their homes?

The majority of people fleeing their homes have become displaced within South Sudan’s borders and many are seeking protection in UN bases in some areas of the country. Some are in remote and hard to reach areas surviving on whatever they can find, in some cases eating water lilies. Others have managed to cross the border into neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Kenya. Some are being hosted by the local community whilst others find themselves in temporary settlements and camps, often in very poor and unsanitary conditions.

How will my money help these people now?

Millions of people in South Sudan require immediate lifesaving support. Support received from the Australian public will allow World Vision to continue to provide urgent humanitarian assistance and also prepare for the coming months. This includes prepositioning food and other essential items in high need areas. 


In those hard to access areas, sometimes the last resort, and only alternative, is providing food in the form of air drops, however, these are expensive to operate, and don’t allow the humanitarian assistance to be as targeted and streamlined.

What is the worst that could happen?

Despite having the relative safety that sites managed by the UN provide, humanitarian organisations are deeply concerned that in some areas where displaced people are now, malnutrition rates amongst children are already approaching the maximum emergency threshold. The rainy season has also begun meaning humanitarian access will continue to be a challenge. If the peace talks hosted by Ethiopia do not succeed, there is no end in sight to the fighting.


With the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 food crisis in Ethiopia approaching, many of us will remember those haunting images of children suffering from hunger and disease. The humanitarian community, including World Vision and with your support, is determined to prevent a repeat of this in South Sudan.