JUBA, — Millions of people facing hunger in South Sudan will be driven to the brink of catastrophe if renewed flashes of violence derail the fragile peace process, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said, warning that the human costs of recent fighting in Juba will be compounded by deepening hunger across the entire country if peace does not hold.

“In Juba, which hasn’t experienced such a level of violence in years, a fragile calm now appears to be holding, but uncertainty grips the city and supplies to food markets have been disrupted,” said FAO Country Representative Serge Tissot.

“And while we hope that the situation will hold, violence may flare up again. If the tenuous peace process falters, the consequences will be widespread and an already dire situation, in which over half the nation’s population is food insecure, could get much, much worse,” he added.

The most recent assessment, released last month, showed South Sudan was already in dire straits, with more than 4.8 million people severely food insecure and malnutrition rates rampant. The assessment projected severe food shortages over the months to come and warned of the risk of hunger crises in parts of the country.

A return to stability and the continuation of the peace process are essential to allowing agricultural production to continue and markets to open, emphasized FAO Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva.

“The people of the world’s youngest nation cannot afford any further instability,” said Graziano da Silva, adding: “We have to remember that peace and food security are two sides of the same coin – it’s the currency that drives development and prosperity. The future of the country depends on the people of South Sudan making a firm and lasting commitment to peace, now.”

FAO is currently assessing the full extent of losses incurred following the violence that erupted last week, when its Juba warehouse was ransacked and stocks of essential supplies like seeds and tools earmarked to help food-insecure people across the country save their livelihoods were looted.

“As the FAO offices in South Sudan remain operational, the continuation of our support to those most in need requires that additional resources be urgently made available to replace what was looted,” said Mr. Tissot.

“Under normal conditions, harvesting of the main maize and sorghum crop would begin in a few weeks’ time – planting of a second season would take place over the same period. How well those activities are able to proceed will have a big impact on food security in both the short and the longer term,” he added.

The recent clashes between opposition and government forces have been the most violent in Juba since the end of the country’s two-year civil war in August 2015.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency said the number of South Sudanese refugees in East Africa could pass one million this year, calling on armed groups to allow safe passage for people fleeing the latest round of deadly violence.

Ann Encontre, a UN refugee coordinator in South Sudan, said there was concern about fresh outflows of refugees following clashes in the capital Juba, and appealed for $701 million in relief aid.

Even before the resurgence of violence in the past week, hundreds of thousands of refugees had been sheltering in Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere since civil war began in December 2013.

William Spindler, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said the number of refugees in neighbouring countries was now 835,000.

The recent violence in Juba echoed the fighting that triggered the civil war, marking a fresh blow to last year’s peace deal to end the bitter conflict, which began when President Salva Kiir accused ex-rebel leader and now Vice President Riek Machar of plotting a coup.

There are new reports that South Sudan authorities are blocking some citizens, including those with US or Canadian dual nationality, from leaving the country, authorities said.

On Thursday, Uganda deployed its military to help evacuate an estimated 3,000 Ugandans living in South Sudan. Several other foreigners also fled through Uganda.

On Friday, dozens of Sudanese women and children arrived in Khartoum from Juba, as Sudan also began to evacuate its nationals from South Sudan, which split from the north five years ago.

South Sudanese voted for independence from Sudan under a peace agreement in 2011.

Both Kiir and Machar earlier this week declared a ceasefire, but observers have warned that the violence could return. Machar has appealed to the UN to establish a “buffer zone”.

Machar’s sacking as vice president in 2013 set off a cycle of retaliatory killings that split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines and drove more than two million out of their homes.

The conflict has been characterised by horrific rights abuses, including gang rapes, the wholesale burning of villages and cannibalism.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia said it was ready to send more soldiers to strengthen the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.

“We’re more than willing to take on our part of responsibility in restoring calm in South Sudan,” said government spokesman Getachew Reda.

President Kiir, however, said South Sudan would not accept more peacekeeping forces.

Source: Name News Network