Hunger levels in areas of South Sudan hardest hit by conflict could reach emergency levels in the coming months, experts predict, as fighting disrupts harvests and insecurity triggers the looting of U.N. food stocks.
The World Food Programme said the impact on food security of the country's month-long conflict will resonate for some time, even if a political resolution to the fighting is found soon.
"So far WFP estimates that 10 percent of its food in the country has been looted - enough to feed some 180,000 people for a month," the agency said in a statement on Monday.
"WFP fears that the impact on food security will be significant for some time even if the political negotiations are successful."
WFP and other agencies pre-position stocks in almost 100 sites around South Sudan because 60 percent of the country is inaccessible by road during the rainy season.
"The looting of food and other assets from a number of our compounds and warehouses around the country, most recently in Bentiu on Thursday, greatly complicates our relief efforts," WFP's regional director, Valerie Guarnieri, added.
The town of Bentiu in oil-rich Unity State was retaken by government forces on Friday.
South Sudan is experiencing its worst crisis since independence two years ago, with 395,000 people displaced since fighting broke out on Dec. 15. As the conflict continues, only just over half of those in need have received any aid, the United Nations said in its latest update.
It is harvest season in the impoverished country, where around 78 percent of the rural population are farmers. As fighting rages, many have abandoned their fields.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) estimates that the worst affected areas - Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states - are at 'crisis' hunger levels, or phase three out of five on a scale where five equals famine. In coming months, hunger levels could reach phase four or 'emergency' levels, it said.
These areas are mostly oil-producing regions and the focus of the fiercest fighting between the government and rebels. The markets in Bor and Malakal, the main trading hubs in Upper Nile and Jonglei, have been destroyed.
The fighting, often along ethnic faultlines, has pitted President Salva Kiir's SPLA government forces against rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, bringing the world's youngest state close to civil war. Due to the heightened risks, transporters of food supplies have increased their prices.
"Truckers asking for much more pay," Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator, tweeted on Monday as WFP negotiated with them to carry 2,000 metric tonnes of food to Abyei, which is hosting thousands of displaced people.
"It's getting costlier to get our job done."
Looting of humanitarian assets, mainly warehouses and offices, has been widespread.
On Friday, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said around 20 vehicles owned by the U.N. and humanitarian agencies have been commandeered by rebels in the towns of Bor and Bentiu.
"This is unacceptable. I call on the leader of the anti-government forces, Riek Machar Teny, to instruct the forces under his command to stop this practice, to make sure that looted assets and goods, including vehicles, are immediately returned," the head of UNMISS, Hilde Johnson, said.
Food insecurity was a major challenge for South Sudan even before the conflict, with 4.4 million people out of a population of around 11 million facing hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
"The conflict is affecting major supply routes, displacing traders and leading to rising food and fuel prices, along with the breakdown of local markets which are crucial to rural farmers, fishers and livestock-dependent populations," it said on Monday.
South Sudan is very fertile, but conflict hampers its ability to feed itself. The planting season for maize, groundnut and sorghum starts in March.