United Nations agencies are calling on the parties to the conflict in South Sudan to provide safe access to enable humanitarian assistance to reach vulnerable people, including 125,000 Sudanese refugees in Maban County, in Upper Nile state.
"There is still time to deliver stocks of food by road, with massive economies of scale, if safe access is guaranteed," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said in a joint news release.
"Without access by road, costly air operations will become the only recourse for providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance," they added.
The conflict between pro- and anti-Government forces in South Sudan, which began in mid-December 2013, is believed to have left thousands dead and forced tens of thousands to seek refuge at UN bases around the country. The fighting has continue unabated despite the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement in January between the parties.
Continued insecurity and fighting along the supply routes have prevented WFP from carrying out regular delivery of critical food supplies to refugee camps in Maban Country. As a result, the agency and its partners have been forced to distribute reduced rations in March and April to refugees who depend largely on this food assistance for their survival.
The agencies warned that refugees are resorting to "negative coping mechanisms" such as selling off non-food items, and burning wood meant for building latrines to produce charcoal for sale. At the same time, there are "disturbing" reports that at least 200 refugees have returned to war-torn Blue Nile state in Sudan in search of food and other basic supplies.
"This could be the beginning of a worrying trend which we are powerless to prevent if the provision of food and other critical supplies continues to be erratic and inconsistent," said Cosmas Chanda, UNHCR Representative in South Sudan.
Underscoring the urgency of pre-positioning adequate food supplies for the coming six months, he added that roads to Maban are facing imminent closure for the duration of the rainy season, which has already started.
UNHCR is deeply concerned that increasing malnutrition rates among refugee children in all four camps are approaching the emergency threshold of 15 per cent. There are indications that in Doro camp acute malnutrition rates have soared in February and March.
WFP will this week distribute the last remaining food stocks in Maban County to refugees in the camps. These food rations will last the refugees less than a week, while WFP uses aircraft to bring additional food stocks to the camps within the next five days. More than 2,300 metric tons of food is needed each month to assist the Sudanese refugees and vulnerable host communities in Maban County.
"We have food supplies that could reach the refugee camps within days by road, but ongoing fighting along key supply routes is preventing us from delivering sufficient stocks into Maban County to assist refugees," said Mike Sackett, WFP's Country Director ad interim in South Sudan.
"We are prioritizing available planes and helicopters to deliver food to refugees and South Sudanese populations affected by the crisis. Ultimately, regaining road access to Maban County and to other communities isolated by conflict is critical to averting a humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan."