Emerged as an independent state in 2011, South Sudan with its almost 12 million inhabitants is Africa’s youngest country and one of the poorest in the world, a situation made worse by seemingly perpetual conflict, violence and human suffering. An intricate web of political, institutional, economic and environmental factors help explain why South Sudan is so fragile and prone to human catastrophe and why possible solutions must be comprehensive and address the root causes of the problems.
Political and institutional factors
After a short period of peace and stability, in December 2013 an armed confrontation broke out between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to Vice President Riek Machar, contending control over the government and the oil-rich states of Jongley, Unity and Upper Nile. In 2015 a presidential decree that dissolved the 10 original states and created 28 new ones contributed to further fragmenting the already weak national institutional framework while exacerbating the power struggles between the centre and the periphery of the state. Given the failure of several attempts to secure an effective peace agreement among the various parties within the government, renewed fighting erupted in mid-July 2017, resulting in increased violence and insecurity throughout the country, including the area of Western Equatoria. This fresh outbreak has generated alarming population displacements since November 2016. In February 2017 famine was declared in South Sudan, signalling the severity of the humanitarian crisis. By July 2017 the situation had gotten worse: about 6 million (or 50% of the population) had become food insecure, 1.9 million were internally displaced, and 2 million had fled the country. However, on 22 December 2017 an agreement to cease hostilities was signed by the government and several opposition groups and in the meantime the second phase of South Sudan’s new peace initiative, the High-Level Revitalization Forum, was planned to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in early February 2018.
South Sudan’s macro-economy has collapsed. According to the latest World Bank report, over the last two years (2016/17) GDP has contracted by 11% due to the conflict. Oil production has plummeted to less than half of the peak production achieved before independence in 2011. South Sudan’s increasing defence and security expenditures were addressed with deficit spending, more money printed and higher inflation (480% in 2016 and 155% in July 2016-June 2017), specifically hitting the prices of basic foodstuff. The volatility of the local currency increased from 18.5 South Sudanese pounds per dollar in December 2015 to 172 in August 2017. Combined government expenditure for health and education is expected to be around 6% of total government spending versus 40% for defence. Basic education and health services are kept at minimum levels of functioning thanks to international aid and contracted agencies with great variability between and within states, leaving some communities with little assistance. The social impact of the economic crisis is dire: delay in salary payment and loss of purchasing power are pushing many public servants out of the official labour force; poverty in urban settings increased from 45% to 70% in just one year; hunger and food insecurity are worsening. It comes as no surprise that most people perceive a worsening economic situation in the near future and their trust in local institutions’ problem-solving capacity has hit its lowest.
95% of people in South Sudan rely on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry resources for their livelihoods. Given its geographical characteristics, South Sudan is a country where environment-related disasters such as floods and droughts have been part of daily life for generations. What is less known is that South Sudan is listed among the 5 worst-performing countries in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2017, together with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Haiti and Liberia. Recent studies suggest that in South Sudan global warming will be 2.5 times higher than the global average.
Climate change indicators such as more frequent extreme weather events, higher temperatures, increases in the frequency and severity of droughts and floods and shifting seasonality are already visible and are negatively affecting the entire food chain, from production to access, utilisation and market stability. Recent analyses have shown that in South Sudan’s regions where flood and drought occur conflict is more likely. Although locally there is widespread knowledge of drought- and flood-resistant crops, many people consider floods and droughts incomprehensible and feel unable to cope with them. Climate change particularly affects women, given their dependence on natural resources, and chances for peace dividends and conflict resolution may come from land tenure and the management of common areas. In a policy document produced with the assistance of the United Nation Environmental Programme (The National Adaptation Programme Action, 2017), Juba’s Ministry of the Environment identified five priorities, including reforestation and agroforestry, sustainability of wetlands and promotion of climate-backed agriculture. The establishment of strong early-warning systems and the strengthening of institutions dealing with climate change are also recommended.
South Sudan’s fragility is the result of multiple factors at play. The current deplorable “state of affairs” arose from a combination of growing political instability, economic crisis and an increased likelihood of extreme climatic events. Restoring peace and security, rebuilding macroeconomic stability and mitigating climate change effects in a comprehensive manner remain the main challenges ahead.
Fear and Famine in South Sudan, Foreign Affairs, April 2017
South Sudan's economic update, 2017, World Bank
South Sudan: Analysis of climate risk impacts on food security and livelihoods: WFP/VAM Regional Bureau 2014
Building Climate Resilience in Fragile Contexts: Key Findings of BRACED Research in South Sudan, 2017
Republic of South Sudan’s National Adaptation Programme of Actions (NAPA) to climate change, 2017
Photo: Farmer in South Sudan, Aimee Brown/Oxfam, Wikimedia Commons