South Sudan Famine Ebbs, But Situation Still Desperate As Hunger Spreads

Published June 21, 2017
Last Updated May 20, 2021

More than 6 million people now facing hunger driven largely by conflict.

ROME/JUBA – Famine has eased in South Sudan after a significant scale up in the humanitarian response, according to new analysis released today. However, the situation remains dire across the country as the number of people struggling to find enough food each day has grown to 6 million – up from 4.9 million in February – and is the highest level of food insecurity ever experienced in South Sudan.

According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) update by the government, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, and other humanitarian partners, the accepted technical definition of famine no longer applies in former Unity State’s Leer and Mayandit counties where famine was declared in February. In two other counties deemed high risk in February – Koch and Panyijiar – immediate and sustained humanitarian assistance most likely played a significant role in preventing further deterioration into famine.

However, 45,000 people in former Unity and Jonglei states are still experiencing catastrophic conditions and face the prospect of starvation if humanitarian assistance is not sustained. This includes 25,000 people in former Unity State and 20,000 people in Jonglei where the situation has rapidly deteriorated because of displacements triggered by conflict and last year’s poor harvest.

Worsening conditions are mirrored across the country. The number of people facing emergency levels of hunger – one step below famine on the IPC scale – is 1.7 million up from 1 million in February.

“The crisis is not over. We are merely keeping people alive but far too many face extreme hunger on the edge of a cliff,” said FAO’s Director of Emergencies Dominique Burgeon. “The only way to stop this desperate situation is to stop the conflict, ensure unimpeded access and enable people to resume their livelihoods.”

The three UN agencies warned that the gains made in the worst hunger hotspots must not be lost. People’s ability to feed themselves has been severely eroded and continued life-saving emergency food and livelihoods support must continue to prevent a shift back to famine.

“The gains made in the famine-affected counties show what can be achieved when sustained assistance reaches families. But the job is far from done,” said Joyce Luma, WFP’s Representative and Country Director in South Sudan. “This is a crisis that continues to get worse with millions of people facing the prospect of starvation if humanitarian assistance ceases. An end to this conflict is imperative.”


“When humanitarian agencies have access and resources we are able to mount a swift and robust response, and save lives,” said Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan. “And yet more than one million children in South Sudan are estimated to be malnourished. Food insecurity is a key issue, but so is lack of health care, poor water and sanitation and, most crucially, access to those children in need of treatment. At present, too many parts of the country remain cut off due to insecurity, leaving hundreds of thousands of children on the cusp of catastrophe.”

Acute malnutrition remains a major public health emergency in several parts of South Sudan, with surveys showing Global Acute Malnutrition prevalence above the World Health Organization’s emergency threshold of 15 percent, with a peak of 26.1 percent in former Duk County in Jonglei State. The situation is expected to deteriorate even further as the lean season peaks in July – the time of year when household food supplies typically run out before the next harvest.

Bleak picture

The increase in food insecurity has been driven by armed conflict, below-average harvests and soaring food prices as well as the effects of the annual lean season.

In the south-west, until recently the country’s bread basket, there are unprecedented levels of hunger caused largely by conflict. Farming communities have been driven over the border into neighbouring countries, leaving behind untended fields, and analysts forecast a record high national cereal deficit for 2018.

On the western bank of the Nile River in the country’s north-east corner, hunger has flared after renewed conflict triggered large displacements and a disruption to livelihoods, markets and humanitarian assistance.

Famine response

WFP has reached 3.4 million people in South Sudan since the beginning of the year. This includes life-saving emergency food and nutrition assistance for 2.6 million people displaced or affected by conflict and 800,000 people through the recovery operation to help communities strengthen their resilience to shocks and continued support to refugees.

So far this year, UNICEF, together with partners, has treated more than 76,000 children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). Children with SAM are nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children. The UN Children’s Fund has a target for the year of reaching 700,000 malnourished children across the country. As part of its multi-sectoral approach to addressing the issue, UNICEF has also provided 500,000 people with safe drinking water and a further 200,000 people with access to sanitation facilities.
UNICEF, WFP and partners also scaled up the deployment of Rapid Response missions, which use helicopters and air drops to reach cut-off communities. Since February, 25 missions have been completed in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei, reaching more than 40,000 children.

FAO has provided fishing, crop- and vegetable-growing kits to more than 2.8 million people, including 200,000 in the famine-affected areas, and vaccinated more than 6 million livestock to save lives through livelihoods.

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; and the death rate per day exceeds two adults out of every 10,000 in the population.

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About WFP
WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience. Each year, WFP assists some 80 million people in 80 countries.


George Fominyen, WFP/Juba, +211 922 465 247,
Frances Kennedy, WFP/Rome, +39 346 760 0806,

Lieke Visser, FAO South Sudan, +211 922 001 661,
Zoie Jones, FAO Rome, +39 06570 56309,

Tim Irwin, UNICEF South Sudan, +211 912 162 888,
James Elder, UNICEF Nairobi, +254 715 581 222,