With malnutrition and conflict stalking the youngest and most vulnerable citizens of South Sudan, the United Nations warned today that hundreds of thousands of children in the country's most crisis-torn areas are at imminent risk of death and disease, including the threat of cholera.
"The dream of a safe and peaceful South Sudan is becoming a living nightmare for its children," said Yoka Brandt, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF) said in a press release ahead of the UN-backed Oslo Humanitarian Pledging Conference, set to convene in the Norwegian capital on Tuesday.
Five months into the conflict, around 80 per cent of children under of the age of five in the three most conflict-affected states – Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity – are at heightened risk of disease and death.
Despite 80,000 people having been fully vaccinated against cholera, the South Sudanese Ministry of Health has confirmed a cholera outbreak in Juba. The cholera caseload is doubling every day, providing troubling proof that the deadly disease is spreading.
UNICEF has helped set up a cholera treatment centre, is supplying tents for triage and patient care, hygiene equipment, clean water and oral rehydration solutions. Over the past 24 hours, hundreds of people have been trained to inform and mobilize communities.
"Right now, the children of South Sudan need humanitarian assistance; they need their leaders to protect their lives, their rights, and their futures; and they need the world to listen – and demand action on their behalf," she added.
The world's youngest nation has been enmeshed in a crisis which began in mid-December 2013 as a political dispute between President Kiir and his former deputy president, Mr. Machar, who had been forced from office earlier that year.
The in-fighting erupted into full-fledged conflict believed to have left thousands of people dead and which has forced tens of thousands more to seek refuge at UN bases around the country. The political rivals signed an accord two weeks ago on ending the fighting, but Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has since urged maximum restraint by all parties amid accusations of breaches of the ceasefire.
Briefing the Security Council last week, the UN chief said that by the end of this year, half of South Sudan's 12 million people will be either in flight, facing starvation, or dead. According to UNICEF, at least half of these are children – the most innocent victims in what is increasingly becoming a children's emergency. Children and women constitute the majority of those fleeing to neighboring countries.
More than half a million children have fled the violence. Women and girls are increasingly sexually assaulted and the targets of gender-based violence. Schools and hospitals have been attacked or used by parties to conflict. More than 9,000 children have been recruited into armed forces by both sides. Thousands of children are separated from their families, within South Sudan and in neighboring countries.
UNICEF goes on to stress that across the country, as many as 50,000 children could die from malnutrition; 740,000 children under the age of five are at high risk of food insecurity. Many are already resorting to eating wild foods such as bulbs and grasses.
Although tireless efforts to deliver humanitarian assistance continue, without an all-inclusive political solution and a broader peace-building framework for promoting social cohesion, the crisis will deteriorate further, with profound consequences and impact on the most vulnerable, especially children.
“UNICEF repeats its call for all parties to provide unhindered and safe access for humanitarian assistance; and to respect their own agreements to stop the violence against children, sexual and gender-based violence, and the recruitment of children,” the statement concludes.