Eight million South Sudanese – roughly 80 percent of the country’s total population – lack access to food following 18 months of civil war triggered by internecine wrangling within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

In a joint statement issued earlier this week, eight humanitarian aid groups warned that, by the end of July, a $1.1 billion funding deficit could lead to starvation for as many as 4.6 million South Sudanese – about 40 percent of the population – if the situation was not swiftly addressed.

In order to meet the needs of those affected by the country’s political crisis, the UN estimates that some $1.63 billion is needed, only 36 percent of which has materialized to date, according to the joint statement, signatories to which included CARE, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, the Danish Refugee Council, the Norwegian Refugee Council, CAFOD Trócaire and Christian Aid.

-Fleeing violence

Catherine Achol recently fled violence in Melut County in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, along with her three young children.

Clashes in Melut in mid-May prompted many local residents to flee into the bush and to the nearby Paloch oilfields.

“When Melut was attacked, I fled to Paloch with my children, where we waited two days for a plane to Juba,” Achol told Anadolu Agency on Tuesday from the South Sudanese capital.

In Juba, she has joined thousands of other displaced people at a local mosque compound where they sleep in a half-built guesthouse.

Arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs, they are forced to get by on charitable donations.

“The place is congested, but we have a roof over our heads,” Achol said. “Here at least we can sleep with the knowledge that we are secure.”

In recent weeks, Achol and other displaced people have received some assistance from aid agencies and the local business community.

“They’ve given us food, blankets, mats and water, but the food is consumed very quickly,” she said. “My husband gave me some money in Paloch, but thathas run out.”

For many like Achol, even minimal access to basic necessities – and a modicum of security – comes as a relief.

Thousands of less fortunate South Sudanese, fearing more violence, continue to hide out in the bush with no access to food or healthcare.

-Lean season

Aid groups, meanwhile, warn that if the funding shortfall isn’t addressed by the end of July, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate further as the country enters the lean season.

"The hungry season is starting now. Governments can make a difference by committing urgent funding,” Zlatko Gegic, Oxfam’s country director for South Sudan, was quoted as saying in the joint statement.

“Families need help now,” he added.

Aimee Ansari, country director for CARE South Sudan, for her part, said: “While needs have risen dramatically, funding hasn’t. Those who need help most – particularly in remote communities – may also end up being cut off from humanitarian aid.”

South Sudan has been shaken by violence since December of 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, his sacked vice president, of trying to overthrow his regime.

Since then, tens of thousands of people have reportedly been killed in the subsequent violence, while some two million others have been displaced, internally and externally.

Meanwhile, several months of on-again, off-again peace talks in Addis Ababa – mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), an East African regional bloc – have failed to produce any tangible breakthroughs.

After talks broke down earlier this year, a number of military offensives were launched in South Sudan’s Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states. According to the UN, numerous civilians were raped and killed during the offensives, while many children were forcibly recruited by the warring parties.

The recent violence has affected some 750,000 people in South Sudan’s Greater Upper Nile region and forced approximately 150,000 people to flee their homes, according to a Tuesday statement issued jointly by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration.

Ongoing fighting in Unity and Upper Nile states, meanwhile, has forced several aid agencies to suspend their activities and – in some cases – evacuate staff, leaving thousands of vulnerable South Sudanese in need of assistance.

“Recent violence has driven civilians further away from assistance, while aid supplies have also been looted,” Jane Andanje, South Sudan country director for CAFOD Trócaire, lamented.

“Delayed funding has hampered the resumption of response activities, meaning vulnerable communities lack help when they need it the most,” she said.

-Short-term response

Humanitarian agencies are currently developing portable “survival kits” that include mosquito nets, vegetable seeds, fishing supplies, water-purification tablets and nutritional biscuits for children, among other things.

For many food-insecure communities, which usually include thousands of children, the kits may represent the only humanitarian aid they receive during the first crucial weeks of the looming lean season.

“These kits will provide people with a short-term capacity to survive, but we’re aware of risks in the delivery of this aid,” said Karim Bah, the FAO’s deputy country representative. “We’re taking all measures and precautions to ensure that our beneficiaries and partners aren’t put at greater risk.”

According to Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’s representative in South Sudan, the majority of those who have fled recent violence are children who will not be ablesurvive without basic necessities like food and clean water.

“The short-term response is crucial while we work on restoring services devastated by conflict,” he said.

Ultimately, however, aid groups say, only the restoration of peace will ease the country’s humanitarian crisis.

“Regional and international governments should increase pressure on the warring parties to allow people to leave areas of conflict and access aid safely,” they said in the joint statement. “We continue to appeal to the warring parties to lay down their arms, urgently reinvigorate the peace process and ensure that a lasting, inclusive peace deal is forged to avert further suffering for the people of South Sudan.”

Anadolu Agency