Geneva - The humanitarian crisis created by South Sudan's civil war may well worsen this year because of the slow international response and suspicions among warring parties of UN relief efforts, the head of aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Tuesday.
More than 1 million people have been displaced since December 15, according to the United Nations, including 800 000 uprooted within South Sudan and 254,000 who have taken refuge in neighbouring states.
A ceasefire deal in January collapsed and negotiations in Addis Ababa have failed to stop fighting between the government and rebels in the country, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011 but has been plagued by disorder since.
“There's very little hope that political talks will be successful in the coming weeks or months. All indicates a civil conflict that is there to last, unless there is an unexpected diplomatic success,” Bruno Jochum, director general of MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, told reporters in Geneva.
The biggest coming challenge would be providing food to replace crops that would have been planted by the now displaced population. The planting season is now and crops would normally be harvested in a few months' time, Jochum said.
“We know that the peak of malnutrition comes through the summer usually, so I would say there's still a few weeks or months to prepare this properly.
“So there has to be a significant acceleration of both emergency preparedness but also simple disbursement of the means by the donors to the organisations that can help.”
But aid donors are much slower to release emergency funds than was the case 20 years ago, he said, and donor governments were finding it very hard to switch from providing development funds to humanitarian funding. So the crisis may need to get much worse to trigger international aid, Jochum said.
“There's always much more reaction when (people are) seeing thousands of critically malnourished children on TV, rather than putting money into preventive distributions of food to avoid this kind of situation.”
Emergency funding once accessible within days might now take 4-5 months to arrive. And much of the aid effort is hobbled by an “obsession with coordination” which has prioritised planning instead of physical distribution of aid on the ground, he said.
In South Sudan, a further threat to aid is posed by the warring parties' growing unhappiness with the UN mission in the country because of its combined military, political and humanitarian dimensions, Jochum said.
“Already today flights and vehicles of the UN are either checked or subject to even rejection, which is a growing problem,” he said.
“As most organisations are totally dependent on UN logistics for their humanitarian work, we see here serious risks for the delivery of assistance in the months to come, and in the coming year, especially if this suspicion of the UN was to translate into more active incidents.”
The heads of two United Nations organisations - refugee agency chief Antonio Guterres and World Food Programme chief Ertharin Cousin - were in South Sudan's capital Juba on Tuesday.
They issued a statement saying that millions of lives could be endangered if urgent action were not taken to end the conflict and support civilians.
They also discussed the crisis with President Salva Kiir and other government officials, and received his commitment to facilitate humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need, the UNHCR and WFP said in a statement.