LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Up to 50,000 undernourished children below the age of five are likely to die in war-torn South Sudan unless they receive urgent treatment, the U.N. Children's Fund has warned.
Nearly a quarter of a million children will suffer severe acute malnutrition by the end of the year if more is not done now to tackle hunger, UNICEF said on Friday. "The youngest citizens of the world’s newest nation are on the verge of a nutrition crisis," it added.
More than 3.7 million people in South Sudan, including almost 740,000 children under five, are at high risk of food insecurity, with many already forced to eat wild “famine foods” like bulbs and grasses, according to UNICEF.
A civil war between the government and rebels has stoked a humanitarian crisis in the country, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 but has since been plagued by unrest. Thousands of people have been killed and around 1 million people have been displaced since fighting erupted in mid-December.
Aid agencies have expressed concern about people's lack of access to life-saving relief because of the warring sides' suspicion of U.N. humanitarian efforts.
"If conflict continues, and farmers miss the planting season, we will see child malnutrition on a scale never before experienced here,” Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's representative in South Sudan, said in a statement. “If we cannot get more funds and better access to reach malnourished children in South Sudan, tens of thousands of under-fives will die.”
Aid agencies in South Sudan warned this month there would be dire humanitarian consequences if urgently needed funds were not raised in the coming weeks. Donors have so far pledged funding to cover 36 percent of the $1.27 billion South Sudan Crisis Response Plan for the period January to June 2014.
UNICEF said on Friday it needs $38 million to meet nutrition needs in South Sudan fully, of which just $4.6 million has been received.
The immediate goal of the agency is to treat more than 150,000 severely malnourished children under five. It will send out rapid response teams into remote areas to deliver ready-to-use foods, micronutrient supplements, medicine, water purification sachets, Vitamin A and de-worming tablets. They will also support breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women.
Earlier this week, medical aid agency Medicins Sans Frontieres accused the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) of refusing to improve living conditions for 21,000 displaced people living in a flood-prone part of a U.N. compound in the capital Juba.
"People are living in natural drainage channels as there is no other space and there are 65 people per latrine. The rains, which will last the best part of six months, are getting heavier and if nothing is done right now the consequences, already horrific, could become fatal," Carolina Lopez, MSF emergency coordinator, said.
MSF called on the U.N. mission to move people into dry parts of the compound, adding that in the first rainfall of the season, 150 toilets collapsed, mixing with floodwater.
On Thursday, Toby Lanzer, the U.N. assistant secretary general in Juba, told the BBC the United Nations was doing its best to improve conditions in the camp, describing MSF's criticism as "unnecessary and unhelpful". The base on the edge of the Nile River had never been set up to deal with such an influx of people, he added.
"Everybody knew that flooding could be an issue, that there would be a public health risk and actually we welcome the MSF into the base, and would continue to do so, to work with us to address the public health concerns," he told the BBC.