“We are eating grass because there is no food”

As a food crisis threatens millions in conflict-stricken South Sudan, families are eating whatever they can to survive. Without more urgent international help, many will likely die of starvation.

“There is nothing for us to eat, nothing,” Nyakaka says, pushing open the wooden door to her mud-walled home to show the bare spot where usually sacks of sorghum or maize would be stored.

“To get anything, I have to walk three days to the nearest market where I can sell maybe a goat or a cow. We have some animals, but selling them is terrible because the price is so bad now. But we have no choice.”

Still, even the desperate measure of selling livestock – the equivalent of emptying the savings account – is not enough.

Morning and evening, Nyakaka and her eight-year-old daughter, Nyaboth, join neighbours on their knees pulling up handfuls of a small-leaved succulent plant known in the local Nuer language as “woor”, which grows wild close to the ground all around Nyakaka’s village of Kiech Kuon.

It is slowly simmered in water for more than an hour and then cooled, leaving a bitter green sludge that is all Nyakaka can offer Nyaboth as the family meal each day. To go with it: small, hard pellets of dried cow’s blood that look like tiny stones of gravel, and taste metallic and sour.

In other parts of the three South Sudanese states worst affected by the war – Upper Nile, where Nyakaka lives, Unity and Jonglei – other families survive only on the milk of their cows, or on fish caught in the swamps, or on the leaves of water lilies that float there.

None of these provides anywhere close to the amount of nutrients or energy that a child or a pregnant or breastfeeding mother needs, says Angela Kangori, a nutrition specialist with UNICEF who was recently in Kiech Kuon.

“There is a serious malnutrition crisis in many parts of the country, and you can see why when you realise what people, children especially, are having to eat,” she says.

More than 3.9 million people including nearly one million children are facing famine in South Sudan, where conflict that broke out at the end of 2013 forced people to flee their homes and fields. That meant planting was delayed and food stockpiled for lean times were looted.

UNICEF estimates that 50,000 children could die before the end of the year if the world fails to step up its funding for this crisis.

Many people living in the worst affected areas have already fallen into the desperate situation officially calculated as that which immediately precedes a famine, Phase 4 of the Integrated Phase Classification, the world’s accepted international scale of food insecurity.

Whether those people will continue their slide into Phase 5 – famine – depends on whether enough emergency food aid can reach them in time. Currently, the combined United Nations and international aid agencies appeal is just 51% funded.

Without more financial assistance coming quickly, Nyakaka and millions of people like her face a potentially deadly few weeks before they can harvest their crops. Even after that, the situation has become so dangerous that help is likely to be needed well into 2015.

“There was another time that we had to eat these grasses, a long time ago when I was a child like my daughter is now,” says Nyakaka, who is 23. “But even that was not bad like things are now. This is the worst that I have seen, and even the old ladies tell us that it is the worst that they have seen too. We can only pray the hard times pass soon.”

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