Following the declaration of famine in South Sudan, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand’s lead humanitarian aid worker, Mark Mitchell, is preparing to return to the world’s newest nation to help coordinate the Caritas response to the worsening situation.

“I was in the country last year to bolster Caritas’ humanitarian response to the existing emergency, and what I saw was people in desperate need. What we’re seeing now is a humanitarian catastrophe. We are acting now to prevent more people dying of hunger,” said Mr Mitchell, senior humanitarian programmes coordinator for Caritas.

The Wellington-based aid worker was in the country in August last year to assist Caritas South Sudan in the design and development of a programme providing emergency supplies and water to thousands of people displaced by the ongoing civil war.

The programme that was set up in 2016 is now being expanded in response to the famine declared in South Sudan’s northern Unity State and severe food shortages across the country, with food and water being distributed to those facing starvation.

According to the United Nations, the famine is affecting more than 100,000 people in Unity State, and there are fears it will spread to a further 5 million people throughout the country who are already struggling with a scarcity of food and quickly approaching a similar level of crisis.

In the south-east of the nation, cases of malnourishment are rising, food is either too expensive for many or unavailable, and there are numerous reports of people being unable to cultivate crops due to weakness from hunger and fear of attacks by the warring factions.

The increasing violence in the country, including atrocities committed against civilians, is devastating communities already affected by the emergency and is hampering aid efforts.

“Due to the escalation of fighting, aid agencies have been forced out, leaving communities without any access to food,” Mr Mitchell said.

“We are in regular contact with the local Caritas agency, and they say security is a huge problem because of armed gangs. Caritas has a nationwide network of Church leaders, priests and community leaders to deliver food to these communities, but we could do more if the situation was stable.”

According to a Caritas statement, serious drought following one of the strongest El Niño events on record is also contributing to the growing threat of famine in Somalia, and emergencies in south-eastern Ethiopia and northern and eastern Kenya, where Caritas is responding with relief supplies.

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