Geneva — The UN refugee agency said on Friday it was deeply concerned about the risk to people in South Sudan, including refugees in Upper Nile state, if conditions prevent UNHCR and its partners from delivering food to them soon.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva that refugees in camps in Maban County last received food in February and might only be able to access partial food rations this month. "Recent cases of severe malnutrition among children have us particularly worried at the risks of prolonged disruption," he said.
UNHCR, World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners normally preposition food and other relief items during the first quarter of the year in preparation for the rainy season. The violent recent clashes in the northern town of Malakal and other strategic river and road transport towns this year have made pre-positioning impossible.
"Unless food is delivered immediately, the health and nutrition status of refugees will become severely compromised," Edwards said. "We are in the dry season, the traditional hunger gap, when refugees are unable to grow food to supplement the WFP rations. The problem is not just food shortages but the safe passage of other humanitarian relief supplies too," he added.
Needy populations in Upper Nile state, including refugees, internally displaced people and, increasingly, host communities, are all suffering with this crisis. It comes on top of, and has been exacerbated by, the armed conflict that has overwhelmed parts of the country for nearly three months.
While Maban County, which hosts 130,000 refugees from Sudan's embattled southern Blue Nile state, has not been directly impacted by the war, general insecurity and border restrictions along supply corridors has prevented delivery of relief items since the beginning of the year. The situation will be compounded by the onset of seasonal rains, when roads become impassable.
At greatest risk is about one-third of the refugee population comprising children under five years of age, pregnant and lactating women, older people, those living with disability and people who are chronically ill. As the rains start - normally in April - vulnerability to water-borne diseases, malaria and respiratory tract infection will increase.
Spokesman Edwards said that in recent weeks, there had been several cases of severe malnutrition among very young children in the refugee camps, which is symptomatic of protein deficiency that can be caused by illness. "Food shortages could, moreover, lead to conflict between refugees and host communities foraging for wild fruits and vegetables. Already, we have seen tensions over grazing lands and open water sources," Edwards said.
Apart from refugees from Sudan, tens of thousands of internally displaced people face even worse conditions in different parts of Upper Nile state. "There is a strong likelihood many will make their way across the border to Ethiopia in search of humanitarian assistance. Already, refugees arriving in neighbouring countries are reported to be in poor nutritional condition," Edwards noted.