Juba — The UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme on Friday called on 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 Upper Nile State's Maban County.
"There is still time to deliver stocks of food by road, with massive economies of scale, if safe access is guaranteed. Without access by road, costly air operations will become the only recourse for providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance," the two agencies said in a joint press release.
Resupplying refugee camps in Maban has been complicated by continued insecurity and fighting along the supply routes, preventing the World Food Programme (WFP) from conducting regular delivery of critical food supplies to refugees.
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.
Refugees are resorting to negative coping mechanisms like selling off non-food items, and burning construction wood 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 the Republic of Sudan in search of food and other basic supplies," the press release said.
"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's representative in South Sudan. Underscoring the urgency of pre-positioning adequate food supplies for the coming six months, he added, "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 to the camps within the next five days. More than 2,300 tonnes of food is needed each month to assist the Sudanese refugees and vulnerable host communities in Maban.
"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 acting country director 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," he added.
Humanitarian organizations have faced severe challenges in accessing many parts of the country by road and river. Insecurity and fighting have been key obstacles, but even in areas where there has not been active conflict, commercial transporters hired by agencies have at times faced banditry and other attacks, excessive checkpoints and demands for bribes.
WFP is using a combination of airlifts and airdrops in remote, hard-to-reach areas, overcoming severe challenges including looting and continued fighting.