South Sudan ceasefire must hold to avert famine: U.N.

JUBA Tue Jun 3, 2014 12:57pm EDT

Displaced people prepare their meals at Tomping camp in Juba, where some 15,000 displaced people who fled their homes are sheltered by the United Nations, January 7, 2014. REUTERS/James Akena

Displaced people prepare their meals at Tomping camp in Juba, where some 15,000 displaced people who fled their homes are sheltered by the United Nations, January 7, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/James Akena

JUBA (Reuters) - South Sudan can only avoid famine if a shaky ceasefire holds and people displaced by more than five months of fighting are able to return home in the next few weeks to plant crops before the rains, a senior U.N. official said.

Donors pledged more than $600 million in May to help avert a crisis which aid agencies said could be the biggest since the 1984 Ethiopian famine, with 3.5 million people already suffering from acute or emergency-level food shortages, including a million unable to meet basic needs, the United Nations says.

This already meant the situation was desperate even if it did not meet the formal definition of famine, the South Sudan's U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization head Sue Lautze said.

“If you were a non-technical person and going to the community, you’d say, ‘Wow, this looks to me like a famine,’” she told Reuters.

Government forces and rebels, who have been fighting since mid-December, agreed a second ceasefire deal in May after the first one in January collapsed. South Sudan's army spokesperson reported more clashes on Monday in Unity and Upper Nile states, oil producing areas that have been flashpoints in the conflict.

Fighting has killed thousands of people and driven more than 1.3 million from their homes.

Lautze said people had to be able to recover scattered livestock and rebuild looted markets, while aid agencies needed swift access to funds pledged by donors last month. If such conditions were not met, the United Nations has said up to four million people could face a possible famine.

"It will require a tremendous amount of resources, a lot of luck and certainly a sustained cessation of hostilities," Lautze said.

She said the rains in the next few months would provide some food, such as fish and wild plants, supplementing emergency aid supplies, but that could change as soon as September when people started to run out of food reserves and while many roads in the country the size of France remained impassable for aid trucks.

“The populations have many months to go through and some of them are going to be extremely difficult,” Lautze said.

For now fighting was hindering aid distribution.

“In the vacuum of power ... anybody with a gun really decides to set up a business stopping trucks as they go by and extracting bribes,” Lautze said.

The shortages followed one of the best agricultural years since South Sudan's independence in 2011, Lautze said, with farmers producing nearly three-quarters of the 1.3 million metric tonnes of food required to feed the population, with aid or food from neighboring states plugging the gap.

(Editing by Drazen Jorgic, Edmund Blair and Louise Ireland)