South Sudan became an independent country in 2011 amid much hope and optimism, following a referendum in which its people voted overwhelmingly to separate from Sudan. However, in December 2013, a major conflict erupted that has devastated areas of the country and escalated ethnic tensions.
Since the end of 2013, the humanitarian situation has dramatically deteriorated, the economy has been in severe decline, and reports of horrific human rights abuses have emerged. A peace agreement was signed in August 2015, but fighting has continued and many South Sudanese struggle to cope with the daily reality of violence and instability.
By April 2016, long-delayed steps towards peace had finally been taken with the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity. However, conflict and instability persist, and 6.1 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2016 – over half the total population of the country.
Conflict and crisis
The conflict has had devastating consequences for South Sudanese communities. What began as fighting linked to political struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar (now First Vice President following the peace agreement) and allied armed groups quickly spread along ethnic lines, exacerbating rivalries between communities.
Numerous human rights reports have documented violence along ethnic faultlines, with reports of targeted killing, sexual and gender-based violence, abduction, forced displacement, and forced recruitment (including of children) into army and militias.
The Greater Upper Nile region (comprised of Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states) of South Sudan has been devastated by the conflict, and in 2015 the conflict spread to previously unaffected areas in Greater Bahr el Ghazal and Greater Equatoria. Western Equatoria state, previously peaceful and prosperous, has been torn apart by conflict.
Insecurity and traumatic incidents have affected millions, and a survey completed in July 2015 found that 41% of respondents showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a similar level to post-genocide Rwanda and Cambodia.
As the conflict that began in December 2013 spread, the scale of humanitarian needs escalated to crisis levels. One in five people (more than 2.4 million) have been displaced, including over 710,000 refugees in surrounding countries. Hunger is widespread, and in 2015 nearly one in every three people (3.9 million) were severely food insecure, with an estimated 30-40,000 facing ‘catastrophic’ food insecurity. The World Food Programme in May 2016 warned that over the coming months that figure could increase to 5.3 million. More than a million suffer from acute malnutrition.
The conflict has affected livelihoods and made it difficult for people to plant and harvest. Displaced people have often been taken in by host communities, who have stretched their resources to try to support those seeking refuge.
Women and children, as well as other vulnerable people such as the elderly and those living with disability or HIV, have been particularly affected by the conflict. Over 10,000 separated or unidentified children have now been identified by humanitarians, and an estimated 1 million children are believed to be in psychosocial distress.
Before the conflict, South Sudan had some of the worst development indicators in the world, and the crisis has meant that what gains were made since the peace agreement was signed in 2005 have been reversed. Vital infrastructure, including health and education facilities, water points, markets and roads, have been destroyed or are inaccessible due to conflict. An adolescent girl is three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school. Nearly one in three schools have been destroyed, damaged, occupied or closed. There have been outbreaks of cholera, Hepatitis E and measles, and malaria is the biggest recorded killer.
Furthermore, the country is also in the grips of an economic crisis as the South Sudanese pound has depreciated rapidly due to the effects of the conflict on productivity, shortages of hard currency, global declines in oil prices, and increasing dependence on imports. This has had severe implications for household economies and livelihoods, and even those not directly affected by the conflict have struggled to afford everyday goods due to soaring inflation.