Monthly Archives: July 2014

Briefing: South Sudan heads towards famine

BENTIU: More than a third of South Sudan’s population is at risk of severe food insecurity as a result of the ongoing conflict, and the international community, NGOs and local organizations are sounding the alarm over an impending famine.

Since December when the country’s feuding leaders, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former Vice-President Reik Machar, began a protracted and deadly civil war, millions have been uprooted and their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

The UN Security Council on 25 July described the food security situation in South Sudan as “the worst in the world”.

IRIN unpicks some of the issues surrounding possible famine.

How bad is it?

Of South Sudan’s roughly 11 million people, 3.9 million are (or were) projected to be in emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity between June and August 2014, according to a 29 July World Food Programme (WFP) Situation Report.

The UN Security Council on 25 July described the food insecurity situation as “catastrophic” and said “it may soon reach the threshold of famine.”

Leaders from the UN, the USA, the European Union as well as regional leaders across Africa have called for greater humanitarian assistance and a rapid end to the conflict in order to avert famine.

The worst affected parts of the country are the three conflict-hit states, Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei.

Nearly one million children aged below five will require acute malnutrition treatment in 2014, according to WFP and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) which estimate that 50,000 children could die from acute malnutrition.

“The world should not wait for a famine to be announced while children here are dying each and every day,” said UNICEF director Anthony Lake, speaking after a visit to South Sudan.

Only half of the 3.8 million people needing some form of humanitarian assistance have been reached, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

What’s impeding aid access?

Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states have been particularly hard to access due to fighting and the rainy season, which has made many roads impassable.

According to the South Sudan WFP logistics cluster, as of 25 July, nearly all major roads to Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states remained closed to traffic, and most other areas are passable only for light vehicles.

Ongoing hostilities have significantly impeded humanitarian access. OCHA reported in its 17 July Situation Report that in Rubkona County, Unity State, the rapid response team delivering food assistance was “disrupted by insecurity” and could only reach 8,000 of the 37,000 people it was targeting in that area.

Poor roads and conflict have meant that agencies have had to increasingly rely on costly airlifts, but these too have been made difficult by poor infrastructure. “Due to the deteriorating conditions of airstrips, most locations are only reachable by helicopter which can carry a maximum of two tons per rotation. This impacts the amount of humanitarian supplies that can be delivered on a daily basis and current helicopter requirements are insufficient with the increasing demands,” noted a 25 July WFP Logistics Cluster Update.

Bentiu airstrip in Unity state is still shut pending renovations, and it is unclear when it will become operational again. The airstrip in Rumbek is also damaged and can only handle helicopters at the moment, and Malakal airport was closed on 26 July.

The violence has also forced many families to abandon their fields and livestock during the planting season, which starts in March and lasts until June. A Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) Seasonal Monitor reported that there has been reduced planting in the conflict-affected states.

Therefore, many are reliant on humanitarian aid in order to survive. But ensuring the safe passage of food and critical supplies is an uphill task, and aid is often looted as towns and villages frequently change hands.

“Recently, 4,600 metric tonnes were looted, which is enough to feed a population of 275,000 per month [not “for a month”],” said Joyce Luma, WFP South Sudan country director.

Why hasn’t famine been declared yet?

The Integrated Food Security Phase Categorization (IPC) scale defines a famine (phase 5) as “the absolute inaccessibility of food to an entire population or sub-group of a population”. For a famine to be declared a number of conditions must be met, including a death rate of greater than 2 per 10,000 people per day, a general acute malnutrition rate of greater than 30 percent and an almost complete lack of food for more than 20 percent.

“We do have 1,700 cases of severe malnutrition in Leer [Unity State], and 1,000 in Bentiu [Unity State], but for famine to be declared, it has to affect over 20 percent of the population,” Sue Lautze, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in South Sudan, told IRIN.

In South Sudan, conflict has impeded access to those in need of food aid

IPC also categorizes acute (phase 3) and emergency levels (phase 4) of food insecurity. For an acute crisis, at least 20 percent of people must have significant food shortages and there must be above normal acute levels of malnutrition. For emergency levels, there must be high levels of acute malnutrition and at least 20 percent of people must have extreme food shortages.

As it stands, more than 3.5 million people are in IPC Phase 3, and “large portions of the population in conflict-affected areas face Emergency (IPC Phase 4),” according to FEWS NET. Within the next four months, famine could occur in parts of Jonglei and Unity States.

What about children?

Children are usually the most vulnerable in situations of famine or emergency food insecurity. UNICEF has reported that 50,000 children are at risk of dying of malnutrition throughout 2014, and hospitals, internally displaced persons (IDPs), shelters and communities are already reporting high numbers of sick children.

In Bentiu’s UN Protection of Civilians (POC) site, aid agencies warn that malnutrition-induced child mortality is reaching alarming levels, with up to four children dying per day from starvation and related complications.

Vanessa Cramond, health adviser for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), explained that children often contract multiple other infections alongside malnutrition, as a result of cramped and poor conditions in IDP camps. “Repeated infections often result in children developing malnutrition … Very often children are presenting to us very late, very sick and we do see very high levels of mortality in the first few days,” she told IRIN in Bentiu.

For example, two-year-old Thielyang was admitted to the MSF hospital in Bentiu with severe malnutrition in addition to tuberculosis. “It took weeks for her to regain her weight, but now she is doing better,” mother Angelina told IRIN.

Why is South Sudan inherently vulnerable to food insecurity?

South Sudan suffers from a chronic agricultural production deficit. Over 90 percent of South Sudan’s land is arable, but less 4 percent of that is farmed today. Most farmers are subsistence growers, and when they flee conflict, little is produced.

According to a FAO/WFP 2014 Crop and Food Security Assessment, subsistence farmers continue to rely largely on the market for their cereal requirements. Notable differences exist even within the 10 states of South Sudan, with households in Upper Nile State covering only 10-20 percent of their cereal needs from their own production, compared to 60-70 percent in Central Equatoria State.

The high costs of transport and poorly integrated markets also increase the cost of bringing in food to South Sudan. Most agricultural produce is imported from Uganda, and even in times of peace, there is a high reliance on transport through South Sudan’s river network.

But with towns like Bor, Malakal and Bentiu frequently changing hands between rebels and government forces, traders have been unwilling to take the risk of transporting goods north from the capital, Juba.

“We keep looking at the markets, we keep asking our teams what’s coming down the river, but there is nothing,” Sue Lautze, head of FAO in South Sudan and deputy humanitarian coordinator, told IRIN.

The current conflict will likely have long-term impacts on development aid, and foreign direct investment. Many agricultural development programmes have been put on hold due to insecurity and the need to channel resources to emergency response, and foreign investors have returned to their home countries.

Lautze explained that because of access difficulties to conflict-affected areas, aid agencies may be tempted to channel funding for development projects to more stable and often more prosperous countries. “You keep development going in the less affected states, while depriving the conflict-affected states globally. That is what happened during the 21-year conflict with Sudan,” she said.


Rising Ebola cases strain health workers

KENEMA/KAILAHUN/FREETOWN/MONROVIA: A shortage of trained health workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea who can treat Ebola victims and prevent further spread of the deadly disease is hampering response efforts, say Health Ministry and NGO staff, who say their efforts are at “breaking point”.

Stéphane Doyone, West Africa coordinator of NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is shouldering a bulk of the case management burden in the three countries, told IRIN: “We are reaching the breaking point of our capacity where today we can’t guarantee to do more of what we’re doing – particularly when it comes to human resources. We need more actors to get involved on the ground.”

MSF has deployed 300 health workers, 80 of them expatriate staff, to work on the Ebola response. “It’s a huge programme but human resources are very challenging: staff must be highly trained and they have to be turned over every 4-6 weeks due to stress and fatigue,” said Doyone. Thus far, MSF has spent US$9.3 million on its Ebola response and does not know how much more it will take, “but rather than focusing on more money, what is needed are more actors on the ground and implementation… Ministries, humanitarian organizations could all be doing more.”

Ministry of Health staff in Liberia and Sierra Leone also called on donor governments and international agencies to urgently step up their response. Tolbert Nyensuah, assistant health minister for preventive services in Liberia, told IRIN both the Liberian Health Ministry and the government as a whole, lacked the capacity to contain the Ebola virus. “We need trained nurses, trained doctors who can help our local staff manage Ebola patients who are in isolation units. We need additional medical supplies. We need to increase the number of treatment centres as the caseload is increasing.”

As of the latest reported statistics, some 729 people have died from the Ebola virus, with 1,323 people infected, making it the largest recorded outbreak.

One health worker, who preferred anonymity, said governments should be doing a better job of sending over specialist health teams to help the response. “[Affected] governments should appeal directly to the US, Europe, Canada, Japan to do more to help.”


There has been criticism that WHO is not doing enough and its response has not been sufficiently concrete. The government and aid agencies are “overwhelmed” said Nyensuah. “This has become a humanitarian crisis and Liberia alone cannot handle this now.”

The presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia each launched National Action Plans today to up the fight against the disease. In Sierra Leone all epicentres will be quarantined and house-to-house searches will be undertaken to identify at-risk individuals. Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf committed US$5 million to up the response. Sierra Leone’s President, Ernest Bai Koromoa, has declared Ebola a public health emergency.

WHO declared Ebola an emergency on 26 July and has set up an outbreak coordination centre in Guinea’s capital Conakry, which will coordinate support to governments at the local, national, regional and international levels.

A government health worker attends to an Ebola patient in Kenema hospital, Sierra Leone

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said WHO is helping with case management, surveillance and epidemiology, working with health ministries, as well as MSF, the Red Cross, UNICEF, NGO Samaritan’s Purse and others. Some 120 experts have been sent in to the region and WHO is trying to source more, he said. National and International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are focusing on raising awareness of hygiene practices during funerals, which have been a major transmission source; while UNICEF and the Liberian and Sierra Leonean governments have stepped up community awareness raising, with radio messaging, posters and door-to-door visits.

“We are going to ministries and agencies carrying out social mobilization campaigns and we are also talking to local and international media raising the awareness… but we need more resources to intensify community to community awareness,” said the Liberian Health Ministry’s Nyensuah.

Resource intensive

Human resources are hard to find because so many trained staff are needed. Each new reported case involves isolation and treatment under rigid safety rules; a tracing operation of everyone the individual has been in contact with over the past 21 days; tracking each of these contacts for 21 days; developing epidemiological surveillance networks; and carrying out community health promotion activities to prevent others from catching the disease.

“We can’t just have one system of social mobilization, training, etc. We have to set them up in multiple locations, which uses a lot of time and resources,” said Jasarevic.

The region is marked by a highly mobile population, which makes it difficult to trace contacts. “The best that we can do with such a mobile population is to get good at tracing and sensitization so people will alert you if they’re on the move,” said MSF’s Doyone.

MSF has limited its Kailahun Ebola treatment hospital to 88 beds because safety has to be the “overriding priority”, said Anja Wolz, head of the operation there. “For us the most important thing is that we’re sure about the protection of the staff – from cleaners and drivers to doctors and nurses, and the safety of the patients.”

Safety measures in place in Kailahun, where no staff members have died from the disease, involve disposing of up to 5,500 euros’ worth of equipment each day, with the majority of staff’s protective suits only worn once, said an MSF spokesperson. When entering or exiting the compound all must pass a security post to disinfect their footwear and hands. Before entering the isolation ward, staff pass through dressing rooms where assistants ensure they are wearing protective suits properly and their gear is sprayed with disinfectant when they leave to ensure nobody contracts the virus while removing the contaminated suit.

Kenema, Sierra Leone

These safety measures were not adhered to as strictly at the Ministry of Health-run Ebola treatment centre in Kenema in central-eastern Sierra Leone, where up to 20 staff have died since treatment started two months ago, including the hospital’s top Ebola doctor, Sheikh Umar Khan. In Liberia, Samuel Brisbane, a senior doctor working at the Ebola treatment centre on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia, died, while a doctor working with NGO Samaritan’s Purse has been infected.

In Kenema treatment centre, IRIN witnessed staff taking blood from a suspected Ebola patient with their heads exposed and their protective suits unzipped to their chests. Some staff members donned their suits hurriedly without assistants, and thus were not fully protected.

Overworked and severely stressed health staff will inevitably make mistakes, said Health Ministry spokesperson Yahya Tunis. “You have to understand, the nurses at Kenema work 12 or 14 hours a day. And with Ebola, the slightest mistake can be fatal… We are very short of staff. Before this [outbreak] started, we did not have many staff to deal with Ebola.”

The Ebola operation at Kenema is currently on hold.


WHO Director-General, west African presidents to launch intensified Ebola outbreak response plan

The Director-General of WHO and presidents of west African nations impacted by the Ebola virus disease outbreak will meet Friday in Guinea to launch a new joint US$ 100 million response plan as part of an intensified international, regional and national campaign to bring the outbreak under control.

“The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level, and this will require increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination,” says Dr Chan. “The countries have identified what they need, and WHO is reaching out to the international community to drive the response plan forward.”

The Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak Response Plan in West Africa identifies the need for several hundred more personnel to be deployed in affected countries to supplement overstretched treatment facilities. Hundreds of international aid workers, as well as 120-plus WHO staff, are already supporting national and regional response efforts. But more are urgently required. Of greatest need are clinical doctors and nurses, epidemiologists, social mobilization experts, logisticians and data managers. The plan also outlines the need to increase preparedness systems in neighbouring nations and strengthen global capacities.

Key elements of the new plan, which draws on lessons learnt from other outbreaks, include strategies to:

stop transmission of Ebola virus disease in the affected countries through scaling up effective, evidence-based outbreak control measures; and prevent the spread of Ebola virus disease to the neighbouring at-risk countries through strengthening epidemic preparedness and response measures.

WHO and affected and neighbouring countries will renew efforts to mobilize communities and strengthen communication so that people know how to avoid infection and what to do if they fear they may have come into contact with the virus.

Improving prevention, detecting and reporting suspected cases, referring people infected with the disease for medical care, as well as psychosocial support, are key. The plan also emphasizes the importance of surveillance, particularly in border areas, of risk assessments and of laboratory-based diagnostic testing of suspected cases. Also highlighted is the need to improve ways to protect health workers, a scarce resource in all three countries, from infection.

Finally, reinforcing coordination of the overall health response is critical. In particular, this includes strengthening capacities of the WHO-run Sub-regional Outbreak Coordination Centre, which was opened this month in Conakry, Guinea, to consolidate and streamline support to West African countries by all major partners and assist in resource mobilization.

The scale of the ongoing outbreak is unprecedented, with approximately 1323 confirmed and suspected cases reported, and 729 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since March 2014.


Food insecurity in South Sudan set to deepen as funds dry up, warns UN agency

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today that food insecurity continues to deepen in South Sudan as funding for life-saving assistance dwindles.

The funding shortfall is hampering efforts to provide farmers, fishers and pastoralists in the country with emergency livelihood kits, which contain crop and vegetable seeds, fishing equipment and livestock treatment kits and vaccines for veterinary support, aggravating the risk of famine in some areas, FAO noted in a news release.

The agency has so far received $42 million of the $108 million it has appealed for as part of the revised Crisis Response Plan for 2014. Contributions received to date have been used to reach more than 205,000 vulnerable households – over 1.2 million people – with the livelihood kits.

FAO said it is delivering emergency livelihood support at a pace 10 times faster than last year. It has delivered, spent or committed all of the funds it has received, and resources have now run out. An additional $66 million is urgently needed to further expand the agency’s support.

“An additional 2 million people, or 345,000 vulnerable households, can be supported if we receive additional funding,” said Jeff Tschirley of FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division.

“We must not wait for the current very critical situation to deepen or for a famine to be declared because by then we know that it will be too late for many. We need to act today to save lives and livelihoods.”

The FAO Representative in South Sudan and the UN’s Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator there, Sue Lautze, underlined the importance of the emergency livelihood kits for the country, where up to 95 per cent of the population depends on farming, fishing or herding to meet their food and income needs.

“The distribution of the kits provides the means for fishers to fish, farmers to plant and pastoralists to keep their herds healthy, which in turn puts milk, vegetables, meat and fish on the table, and that’s been keeping a lot of people alive right now,” she said.

In May, some 3.5 million people – almost one in three South Sudanese – were facing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, and the number is expected to increase to 3.9 million (34 per cent of the total population) during June through August 2014.

More than 1.5 million people have fled their homes since conflict broke out in the country in mid-December and the situation has been further exacerbated by the onset of the rainy season in June. Meanwhile, violent clashes continue to be reported in some areas despite the signing of a cessation of hostilities agreement in May.

“The best means to prevent famine in South Sudan is for the guns to fall silent,” said Ms. Lautze. “Continued violence is the single most important factor in transforming a risk of famine into a reality.”

Together, UN agencies and partners have received only 50 per cent of the total $1.8 billion requested under the Crisis Response Plan for 2014 to carry out urgent humanitarian interventions in the country.


SA aims to produce 100 000 PhDs by 2030

Pretoria: Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor says government has set a target of producing 100 000 Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) graduates by 2030 to improve research and innovation capacity.

Minister Pandor said South Africa needs to train about 6 000 PhDs per annum, which will require an investment of about R5.8 billion a year.

Minister Pandor said her department has allocated R80 million to fund 1 000 science postgraduates in the 2014/15 internship programme.

Addressing The New Age business briefing in Midrand this morning, the minister said more funding is needed to increase the number of staff at universities with PhDs.

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is working with the Department of Higher Education and Training to achieve this.

“Lack of research supervision capacity and the narrow doctoral student pipeline are some of the hindrances to attaining the National Development Plan vision. The DST has started investing in emerging research programmes, and research career advancement fellowships.

“Our goal with regards to the average graduation age for a PhD is to have it lowered from just below 40 to below 35,” she said.

For young people who are qualified but do not have work experience, Minister Pandor said her department will help them with an internship programme for a period of 12 months to gain work experience.

Between 2012 and 2014, DST had exposed about 1 341 unemployed graduates to work experience in science, engineering and technology institutions.

“Of these, 58% were absorbed into permanent employment in the same institutions and others have found employment elsewhere,” Minister Pandor said.

On development matters, a science and education centre will be built in Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape, at a cost of R30 million, to encourage an appreciation for science and to offer teacher training in the area.

Minister Pandor said her department will invest R497 million on science education, awareness and communication.

The programme, which will be run through the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), will reach about 350 000 learners and about 13 000 teachers.


Sanral chairperson resignation accepted

Pretoria: Transport Minister Dipuo Peters has accepted the resignation letter of chairperson of the South African Nation Roads Agency Limited (Sanral).

In a statement, on Thursday, Minister Peters said she received the letter of resignation from the chairperson of the board of directors of Sanral, Tembakazi Mnyaka.

In a letter addressed to the Minister, Mnyaka indicated that the resignation takes effect immediately, citing personal reasons for her decision.

“I wish to thank Ms. Mnyaka for her efforts in ensuring that Sanral continues to discharge its mandate of building and maintaining South Africa’s national road network,” said Minister Peters.