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Interview: ‘Era-defining’ war in Ukraine impacts WFP operations in South Sudan

A malnourished child is assessed at a nutrition clinic in Fangak county, South Sudan.
© WFP/Marwa Awad
A malnourished child is assessed at a nutrition clinic in Fangak county, South Sudan.

Interview: ‘Era-defining’ war in Ukraine impacts WFP operations in South Sudan

Humanitarian Aid

Nearly eight million people in South Sudan are facing severe levels of food insecurity at a time when the cost of staple items and fuel have shot up due to supply chain disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine, the World Food Programme (WFP) has reported.

Pockets of catastrophic hunger, technically famine, are already present in eight locations in the country, while violence has prevented the UN agency from consistently reaching another area where people were already going hungry last year.

South Sudan is also facing a fourth year of unprecedented flooding that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and sparked clashes between farming and herding communities.

Matthew Hollingworth, WFP Country Director in South Sudan, spoke to UN News about how fallout from what he called the “era-defining’” war in Ukraine is being felt thousands of kilometres away.

He warned that WFP will have to make “tough choices” this year, including prioritizing aid delivery to only the most vulnerable. 

More than 10 years after South Sudan gained independence, the country cannot afford to fail, Mr. Hollingworth said, though stressing that what is needed above all is peace.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Matthew Hollingworth: The overall number of people needing any form of humanitarian assistance right now this year in South Sudan is 8.9 million, one of the highest people-in-need figures that we’ve ever had. Of those, based on the latest food security Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) - the main assessment that we use to look at food insecurity in a country - there are 7.74 million people who will face severe levels of acute food insecurity this lean season, so from April to July. That’s 63 per cent of the population of this country. Those are some of the worst figures we’ve ever had, certainly since this country was born as an independent state in 2011. 

What’s caused it, or what is causing it, is clearly the amount of violence that this country still sees on a daily basis, and the accumulation of that violence over many years. We have had three years of unprecedented flooding, and we’re going into a fourth year. Agriculturalists and pastoralists who have basically survived, lived and sustained themselves through the same farming roles for generations, can no longer do so because their land has changed forever. It’s now under water. And, of course, in a place like South Sudan, when you talk about displacement, that displacement then has an impact on stability and peace. So, we have issues of violence, conflict, being created because, for example, pastoralists along with their animals have been displaced into territory where other people live or have lived. 

We’ve also seen massive cost increases on commodities over the last three years primarily because of COVID, and what COVID did to supply chains. More recently, we’ve had fuel costs increase which is certainly having an impact on the cost of food.  And the last point of course is that yes, the war in Ukraine and what that is doing to food prices and fuel crises globally, and how that impacts on the South Sudanese.

UN News: Let’s go into that because there are so many layers to what is happening in South Sudan. Ukraine is thousands of kilometres away, but the UN and WFP have been speaking about the fallouts impacting individual countries and peoples.

Matthew Hollingworth: Russia and Ukraine represent about 30 per cent of the world’s cereals exports. That means so many countries that rely on importing cereals from Russia and Ukraine, if that flow of a key food commodity is impacted in any way, it has a major impact on what is typically a staple of diets across the world. Now in South Sudan, that is not the mainstay of the diet. It’s sorghum or maize, as key cereals. But we are surrounded by countries that rely on wheat. And if wheat prices go up, and if wheat availability goes down, the price of sorghum and maize goes up as a ripple effect of what’s happening in Ukraine.

We’re already seeing an increasing price of sorghum and maize in the country.  We’re seeing an already significant increase on vegetable oil, already 15 per cent since the beginning of the year. And again, South Sudan doesn’t necessarily eat the high-coast sunflower oil that is produced in Ukraine and is not being exported because of the crisis, as it usually would be. But the vegetable oil here still is going up in price because globally, there’s less available or there is a fear that there is less available in the future.

The cost of fuel is going up.  We’re already seeing at least a $300,000 per month additional cost for aviation fuel. On the fuel that we use to move trucks around the country– and the vast majority of what is moved for the humanitarian community is by truck – those prices have gone up by a million dollars a month.  If fuel prices continue as they are just today, that will be $8 million more required just to move trucks around the country this year.

World Food Programme trucks deliver aid in South Sudan (file).
© WFP/Eulalia Berlanga
World Food Programme trucks deliver aid in South Sudan (file).

UN News: WFP is facing those astronomical transport costs.  How will you be able to sustain this?

Matthew Hollingworth: Right now, we know we can’t. Even though those numbers sound big, but they are dwarfed by what we need to support those millions in South Sudan.  We are currently $600 million short for our programmes for the next six months. There are so many mega crises in the world today – Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, in the eastern Horn of Africa because of the drought, the Syria refugee crisis, Ethiopia and the Tigray crisis, the situation of the Sudanese in the north – we have all of these crises, and what it means is that donors do not have the resources to meet the enormity of the humanitarian needs in the world. 

Ukraine is an era-defining crisis. It is, suffice it to say, going to have an impact everywhere. And one of those impacts is humanitarian donors, Member States and humanitarian institutions will not have the money to meet the enormity of the needs that the world sees.  And we will not meet the increased needs of various countries and around the world, including in South Sudan, because of that enormity that the Ukraine is making even harder. 

UN News: Given the astronomical rise in costs, what steps are WFP taking, and as needs are rising?

Matthew Hollingworth:  We are calling on donors to recognize that first of all, this is still the youngest nation in the world, and it’s in a pretty fragile state. We are getting towards the end of what has been a very difficult unstable transitional period. We have a Transitional Government of National Unity brought together by the various parties who were fighting one another off-and-on for the last seven years. That political agreement could break, and we’re coming to the culmination of it. And what’s happening as we come to the end is this enormous instability because we’re seeing poverty levels and humanitarian needs at levels never seen before. So, on the one hand we are saying to donors ‘let’s be cognizant of the fact that this country that was only really birthed 10 years ago is in a very precarious situation’.  What we can’t do is let a humanitarian crisis in this country put us back on the wrong track, harm the peace process even further. And remember, we’re seeing conflict all the time still in South Sudan – 44,000 people were displaced last week because of fighting in Unity State alone.

Obviously, we’re also having to take some really tough choices. Eight months ago, we had to make that awful decision to, as it were, take from the hungry to give to the starving. We reduced the rations we were providing to refugees from the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc, in order to increase rations in the areas where South Sudan was seeing the likelihood of famine. We can’t reduce their rations any further. They are only getting 50 per cent. That’s not enough in terms of sustaining a healthy life . It’s really already providing the very scrapings of the barrel, as it were, of what they need. But with enormous needs outstanding, what we need to do now is unfortunately prioritize only the most vulnerable. So, what we will do in the next six months is only assist the people in catastrophic and emergency levels of food insecurity. But that means we will stop providing some of the forms of assistance we give in areas where people are in less extreme levels of food insecurity.

But that has an impact as well because we are getting to a point of electioneering, the politics that happen before an election. And if you don’t provide support in certain areas because their needs are less, it can be misconstrued politically. The prioritization will be happening based on a vulnerability analysis, but to those effected it could be seen as ‘why are they getting and I am not getting?’ When you start getting ‘us-and-them’ arguments over aid, at a time of political instability, it’s a problematic recipe, but it’s one we’re going to have to walk very, very carefully through to ensure that the messaging is clear. 

Sacks of split peas are transported to Jonglei State via the White Nile River in South Sudan.
© WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua
Sacks of split peas are transported to Jonglei State via the White Nile River in South Sudan.

UN News: Mr. Hollingworth, thank you for speaking to us.  Is there anything further you would like our audience to know about WFP’s work in South Sudan?

Matthew Hollingworth: One area that is very important is that in a country like South Sudan, there are so many communities that live in real isolation. They have experienced that marginalization, that disenfranchisement, for decades and decades. What we would really like to be doing is support those communities through real development investment.  In order to do that, there is one key thing we need, and we haven’t had enough of. It’s not money; it’s peace.  Because when you don’t have peace, you spend so much more money on responding to the humanitarian crises and the humanitarian needs. 

Whereas if there were peace, we should have already been now phasing out humanitarian activities and only be seeing development activities, and actually be handing over responsibilities to Government entities. But instead of that happening, we are still now having to be making those life-saving decisions when actually we should just be focusing on life-changing activities, but we can’t.  With peace, we could be making the difference to ensure that communities in South Sudan wouldn’t have to be concerned about wars 7,000 miles away, and the impact of those wars on availability and access in their community, because they would be able to look after themselves. They would be able to meet their own needs.