Why people in South Sudan face famine, when the land is fertile and abundant harvest is possible?

Published: Sep 10, 2015 Reading time: 6 minutes
Why people in South Sudan face famine, when the land is fertile and abundant harvest is possible?
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The drive from Aweil to Nyamlell is often a dry and dusty one, rife with deserted fields and henna-colored mounds where hyenas find solace under a blazing midday sun. But today, the scene is different. Awash with greenery and shallow swamps created by seasonal rains, a small stream occasionally shoots across the way, raising curious gazes from ibises hunting frogs nearby. This portrait lends to the imagination of a fertile land, capable of producing vast stretches of crops, fruits and vegetables. And yet, despite the country’s enormous potential, the local population finds itself mired in cyclical spells of hunger that ravage the region’s development with brutal effectiveness.

I cannot but ask a simple question: Why must the people of South Sudan’s Northern Bahr el-Ghazal be subject to these ever-repeating periods of famine, time and again, when the land around them begs for cultivation and overabundant harvest


We are not talking about old tractors

One of the main causes of this chronic inefficiency are practices of land cultivation. We are not talking about old tractors or ploughs that use ox or donkey power. Even these are still considered a novelty. Also, forget the usual hoe – that wooden stick with a piece of metal stuck to its end. Here, most people work with a rudimentary hoe. A thin piece of metal is strapped into it so that the shard only prolongs the wooden core. It is common to see people kneeling in the field, digging out clumps of soil in preparation for sowing. Why is it so? As most of these people are returnees and spent substantial period of their life as refugees in Sudan and they simply never learned how to cultivate land.

Nature further complicates working the land. For the amount of labor people expend, the yield is a meager fraction of what households need for the subsequent dry season. Between May and October, the period when heavy rains regularly drop across South Sudan, random dry spells can disrupt cultivation. When we passed through the village of Abyei during the month of June, we could spot the early sprouting of sorghum, the staple crop in the region. But, the seedlings were perishing beneath the scorching sun with gaping cracks in the dirt documenting how parched the land was. Mary, a mother of four who owns a plot of land here, was forced to witness the forlorn state of developments before her.

“There is nothing we can do,” she sighed, huddling with her children in the shade of their ramshackle hut. “Unless the rains come soon, all the crops will be lost, and we do not have seeds to replace them,”she adds.

Although thick, dark clouds appeared just a week later, with plenty of water to spare, the damage had been done. Most South Sudanese, fearing punishment from god, abstain from watering their lands during a dry spell. As a result, the endurance of cultivated crops gets pushed to its limits. For Mary, not watering her crops on days when temperatures hover close to 40C will most likely create a grueling situation to cope with – her yield in October will not be enough to feed her family until the next harvest.

Women bear the brunt of poverty

It is women such as Mary who bear the greatest brunt of South Sudan’s poverty – a wretched, recurring constant over the course of generations. They are typically married in exchange for a number of livestock negotiated by family chiefs. Many of them skip meals on a regular basis, to allow their children to take an extra portion of food. Many walk several hours each day, toddlers bundled up on their backs, to fetch water from the closest borehole. As the routine goes, after cooking, cleaning and breastfeeding come daily chores in the fields, weeding plants under the blistering tentacles of a tropical sun. The mothers and grandmothers of Aweil counties are overworked, because they are the reason why local communities are able to barely get by, even in times of extreme crisis.

A nationwide economic meltdown has been another factor behind the people’s lean-season struggles. Regina, an 18-year-old teenager, moved to the village of Warallel in Aweil West County one year ago after her family arranged for her marriage with a man she barely knew. Regina has been one of the luckier ones though, as her husband happens to maintain a somewhat steady job in Aweil. Even despite this, life has not been exactly easy for Regina’s family.

“When living in Khartoum, we did not have to worry about food at all,” she says, reminiscing the time she spent in northern Sudan, where many families in the Greater Bahr el-Ghazal region escaped when the civil war broke out. “Right now, we do not have enough land to dig or firewood to cook with, but my husband’s salary helps to keep our stock from being empty,” she adds. However, since prices of basic staples have grown more than three-fold over the past year, local markets have become increasingly less accessible for most other villagers trying to purchase basic commodities using their devalued South Sudanese pounds.


Multisectoral intervention: way to succeed

What further aggravates daily life is a lack of basic knowledge on health and hygiene practices severely needed in a malaria-endemic region where tropical diseases threaten human development. Most villagers do not boil water or wash their hands with soap or ash before preparing food. As a result, thousands – particularly children – grapple with diarrhea, depriving their weak bodies of vital nutrients, and hence, stunting their growth.

Arduous. This is the predominant pace of life in a place challenged by problems with agriculture, poverty, the economy, and health. This is because the country’s greatest blessing – its fertile land – is underutilized or disrespected. Substantial and sustainable investments into healthy production that would improve the standard of living for local communities have been close to nothing. International organizations active in the region for years have been working to support local development efforts but, ultimately, only a strong private sector can bring about lasting and meaningful change.

Overall, Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, as well as a young and troubled South Sudan, has a long way to go. At this point, the presence of humanitarian organizations, such as People in Need, play a role in stemming the present palpable misery from spiraling out of control. But it is important to combine interventions for immediate relief – aiming to feed those whose resources and livelihoods have already dried up – with the promotion of effective practices of cultivating the land. People here must be able to afford to send their kids to school instead of tying them up to growing sorghum forever. However, in order for such a dramatic change to happen, local markets must move from being short-term sustenance providers, into steady and operative opportunity creators. This is why People in Need together with European Comission focuses on multi-sectoral intervention which are key to prevent undernutrition in South Sudan. 

Autor: Jakub Smutný