Twelve years after gaining independence, people in South Sudan continue to face deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
Conflict, public health challenges, climatic and economic shocks, and poor governance have severely affected people’s livelihoods and hindered access to essential services. Poverty is ubiquitous, exacerbated by these factors. The most recent household survey was conducted in 2016-2017 and revealed that 67.3% of South Sudan’s population lived below the international poverty line.
The Human Development Index, launched in 1990 to look beyond gross domestic product as a measure of well-being, ranks South Sudan last globally. South Sudan’s life expectancy is 55, people spend just 5.5 years in school on average and earn $768 a year.
In 2023, 9.4 million people will be in need of humanitarian assistance, 76% of South Sudan’s population, and an increase of 500,000 people from 2022. In their June 2023 South Sudan Humanitarian Snapshot, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said, “In June, conflict, food insecurity, public health challenges and climatic and economic shocks continued to drive humanitarian needs in South Sudan. The Sudan crisis has further aggravated people’s already fragile situation, especially in the northern counties, with thousands of civilians continuing to flee to South Sudan.”
Fighting erupted in neighboring Sudan in mid-April 2023 between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces. The conflict has displaced thousands within Sudan and forced thousands more to flee to South Sudan. Sudan’s conflict will exacerbate the humanitarian situation in South Sudan.
Nicholas Haysom, the UN envoy for South Sudan, told the UN Security Council in June 2023 that the capacity of the government and humanitarian organizations to absorb the people crossing the border form Sudan into South Sudan “is under strain,” with limited local resources in border towns, especially Renk. For more, see our Sudan Humanitarian Crisis disaster profile.
From December 2022 to January 2023, inter-communal violence in Greater Pibor Administrative Area and Jonglei state resulted in the deaths of at least 85 people and the displacement of many others. Safety and security concerns remain significant and impede humanitarian access.
In a report released in April 2023 by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan shows “how perpetrators of the most serious crimes – including widespread attacks against civilians and extrajudicial killings – go unpunished, with senior Government officials and military implicated in serious violations.”
On April 3, 2023, the UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. Amnesty International called the extension of the mandate, “an important signal from the Human Rights Council that accountability is key.”
The World Bank says 86 million Africans may be made homeless by climate change in the coming decades. The displaced people around the Sudd, a wetland at the center of South Sudan that is twice the size of Belgium, are among the first. United Nations (UN) agencies say four years of record rains have flooded two-thirds of South Sudan.
South Sudan is among the top 10 countries in the world most vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate, including droughts and flooding. In some parts of the country, floodwaters from the 2019-2020 rainy season had not yet receded by the start of the 2021 rainy season.
- Approximately 67% of South Sudan’s population lives at the international poverty line and the World Bank says, “GDP per-capita growth suggest that extreme poverty will likely continue to increase, reaching 73% of the population by 2024.” The inflation rate for consumer prices in South Sudan moved over the past 12 years between -0.1% and 380%.
- About 5.83 million people, almost half of South Sudan’s population, are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity classified as IPC Phase 3 or above (Crisis or worse) between September to November 2023.
- Since the outbreak of fighting in Sudan on April 15, 2023, there’s been an influx of people fleeing the country with more than 366,000 people were recorded as crossing the border into South Sudan as of Nov. 8, and more people expected to arrive as the fighting continues.
- One million people have been affected by four consecutive years of flooding that have submerged an area larger than Denmark.
- To address the most critical needs of 6.8 million people, the 2023 HRP will require $1.7 billion and “only timely and at-scale funding will enable us to respond to people’s needs.”
- South Sudan’s 2023 Regional Refugee Response Plan requires $1.33 billion to meet the critical needs of more than 2.2 million refugees and asylum seekers and 1.89 million members of their hosting communities.
- As of Oct. 31, 2023, there were 2,219,740 South Sudanese refugees hosted in neighboring countries, with Uganda hosting 40.9% (905,568) of the total figure.
Conflict and violence
South Sudan remains one of the least peaceful countries in the world, according to the 2023 Global Peace Index. South Sudan experienced a 1% deterioration of its overall score in the 2023 report, owing to deteriorations in the “ongoing conflict” and “militarization” domains.
Exacerbating the humanitarian situation in South Sudan is the fighting that erupted in neighboring Sudan in mid-April between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces. More than 366,000 people were recorded as crossing the border into South Sudan as of Nov. 8. The majority are South Sudanese returnees who had been residing in Sudan.
Around 80% of people fleeing to South Sudan pass through the border area of Joda/Renk, where the humanitarian situation is dire. The Renk Transit Centre was designed to accommodate a couple thousand people but around 15,000 are estimated to be staying there, an increase of approximately 3,000 since July 2023.
On May 4, the UN and its partners launched an Emergency Response Plan to support people fleeing the conflict in neighboring Sudan. The plan appeals for $96 million to assist the people arriving in South Sudan.
Nicholas Haysom, the UN envoy for South Sudan, told the UN Security Council in June 2023 the humanitarian, economic and political impacts of the Sudanese fighting are exacerbating “the existing triggers and drivers of conflict” in South Sudan, and are “complicating an already tenuous security situation across the country.”
In November 2023, the UN Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Hanna Serwaa Tetteh told the UN Security Council the conflict in Sudan “is profoundly affecting bilateral relations between Sudan and South Sudan, with significant humanitarian, security, economic and political consequences that are a matter of deep concern among the South Sudanese political leadership.”
South Sudan’s latest peace agreement, the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan, was signed in 2018. The agreement led to a fragile truce and resulted in the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity in February 2020.
Although hostility between the government and the main opposition has decreased, the power-sharing logic of the peace agreement may be contributing to ongoing violence in the country rather than producing lasting peace.
The UN is concerned that South Sudan’s Transitional Government may not meet its critical benchmarks. In July 2022, the U.S. ended assistance for peace process monitoring mechanisms saying South Sudan’s leaders have shown “a lack of political will necessary to implement critical reforms.”
In August 2022, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir announced the country’s transitional government would remain in power for another two years, delaying elections that were scheduled for December. The U.S., Britain and Norway have played key roles in mediating the peace process and expressed reservations about the extension.
In October 2022, members of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said progress on the 2018 peace agreement has been extremely slow and called for urgent action to save lives. In March 2023, President Kiir appointed a member of his own party as defense minister. The move breaches part of the peace deal in which the position should be selected by the party of First Vice President and opposition leader, Riek Machar.
Amnesty International documented potential war crimes and other violations during the fighting in Western Equatoria in 2021. The various forms of violence threaten and undermine people’s physical and mental well-being.
An Amnesty International report released in May 2022 reveals how conflict-related sexual violence persists in the country and how guns are used to facilitate sexual violence. In September 2022, a UN human rights team said incidents of rape had become so common in South Sudan that many women no longer report repeated sexual attacks. Rape victims lack access to medical and trauma care. An investigation by The New Humanitarian and Al Jazeera published in September 2022 found that reports of sexual abuse by aid workers at an UN-run camp in the country have continued and recently increased.
According to ACAPS analysis, humanitarian access remains highly constrained and violence against humanitarian workers is ongoing. South Sudan continues to be one of the most dangerous places for aid workers, with nine humanitarian workers killed in 2022. Three humanitarian workers killed in January 2023 and two were shot and killed in September 2023. On Nov. 6, 2023, a South Sudanese national aid worker was killed while on a field trip to respond to a suspected measles outbreak in Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
South Sudan is facing its worst flooding in decades. Four consecutive years of record-breaking rains and floods covered two-thirds of the country and left people without food or land to cultivate. The devastating flooding damaged shelters and schools, destroyed crops and household goods, reduced access to safe water and hindered humanitarian access.
December to February are typically the driest months for South Sudan, when the rivers subside and the Sudd wetlands air out. The water from the previous floods is not receding before the next rains come. Dr. Liz Stephens, professor in climate risks and resilience at the University of Reading, said, “It will certainly take years for the floods from 2021 to recede, because the land is disconnected from the main river, so floodwaters have to evaporate rather than drain away.”
The effects of the flooding are severe and broad. In 2021, the flooding destroyed 161,055 acres (65,177 hectares) of agricultural land and killed 795,558 livestock. Around 835,000 people in 33 out of 78 counties in eight states were affected by flooding between May and December 2021.
According to UNOCHA in June 2023, “These recurring floods have worsened an already dire situation, leaving people without food and viable land for cultivation. The same states affected by severe flooding are now receiving refugees and returnees from Sudan, further straining the capacity to respond.”
In August 2023, the southern side of Renk experienced localized flooding, which displaced an estimated 1,750 people in Renk town and significantly affected the surrounding areas. As of November 2023, about 15% of the country is submerged year-round, as opposed to 5% several years ago.
Many people who lost their 2021 harvest lost their livestock due to diseases caused by animals grazing on flooded fields. Collecting and eating plants is one coping strategy people have used. Thousands of people are being forced to move, perhaps permanently, from their traditional lands. With South Sudan already experiencing ethnic tensions and subnational conflict over resources, large scale displacements caused by flooding are likely to exacerbate the situation as people move into new lands.
In February 2023, South Sudan’s Minister of Petroleum said the country’s oil production dropped to 140,000 barrels per day from 160,000 barrels per day in 2022 due to heavy flooding in the northern oil fields. Oil production, along with agriculture, is the most important sector of South Sudan’s economy, with oil contributing 90% of revenue, according to the World Bank.
Critical drivers of displacement in South Sudan are conflict, persistent poverty, food insecurity and flooding. As of August 2023, there were 1.5 million IDPs in South Sudan, and more than 2.21 million South Sudanese are refugees in neighboring countries as of Oct. 31, 2023.
Many displaced people have been forced to relocate multiple times to seek better living conditions or flee violence. Women, girls and people with disabilities are at risk of sexual violence, both inside displacement sites and when collecting fuel or food in surrounding areas.
A macroeconomic crisis, linked to a decade of conflict, is a driver of South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis and contributes to displacement. The 2023 Global Report on Food Crises highlighted other drivers of the crisis, including very high staple food prices that are a result of insufficient domestic food supplies; low foreign currency reserves and the weak national currency; high fuel prices; and reduced imports from neighboring Uganda. These factors result in limited access to livelihoods, lack of agricultural opportunities and continued insecurity, which forces people to flee their homes in search of safety and food assistance.
According to South Sudan’s 2023 Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRRP), “Some of the vulnerabilities and risk stem from exposure to endemic violence and the impact of climate chocks in the country of origin and others are magnified by prolonged displacement in situations where the needs outstrip the available resources for assistance, compounded by environments not conducive to self-reliance.”
The refugee crisis is a children’s crisis; children between the ages of 0-17 make up over 50% of the population, according to the 2023 RRRP. Refugee children face particular risks, including child labor, abduction and exposure to being trafficked.
Of the five neighboring countries hosting South Sudanese refugees, Uganda hosts the most. The majority of refugees are situated in remote and economically underserved areas. Host communities are often in an unstable socioeconomic situation themselves, and new refugees’ arrival could further exacerbate hardship.
The South Sudan 2023 HRP says, “Two-thirds of South Sudan’s population are affected by the precarious food security situation, making the country one of the worst food insecurity emergencies in the world.”
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said in November 2023 “approximately 5.83 million people – almost half of South Sudan’s population (46 percent) – are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity classified as IPC Phase 3 or above (Crisis or worse) between September to November 2023.”
Looking ahead, FEWS NET projected that from December 2023 to March 2024, the situation will improve marginally as a result of reduced intensity of climatic shocks.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the WFP identified South Sudan as one of eight countries or regions at the highest level of concern regarding levels of acute food insecurity in their June to November 2023 outlook.
The report says, “The eruption of armed conflict in the Sudan in April 2023 is likely to have significant ramifications for its neighbouring countries, in particular large population movements and increasing levels of acute food insecurity among displaced and returning populations, and host communities across several regions.”
The combined effects of devastating flooding, linked to climate change, and armed conflict have reduced agricultural production, led to a loss of livelihoods and destroyed household assets. The WFP warned in November 2023 that children in flood-affected parts of South Sudan are expected to face extreme levels of malnutrition in the first half of 2024 “as the climate crisis tightens its grip on the country.”
According to Oxfam research published in May 2022, “More than 80% of the respondents in the study pointed to the intercommunal conflicts and the recurring floods that have hit the region over the past three years as being the major drivers of the food security crisis.” Traditional sources of livelihoods for women have been depleted which contributed to an increase in gender inequality.
During a complex humanitarian emergency, immediate needs include shelter, food, water, sanitation and hygiene, health care and protection of at-risk populations. These needs will continue through the course of the CHE.
Food assistance and livelihood support
The main challenge is food insecurity or lack of food, undermining people’s health and increasing protection risks.
Despite rising needs amid the continued arrival of South Sudanese refugees and returnees in the north, humanitarian assistance is not sufficient. According to FEWS NET in September 2023, large funding shortages “are likely to threaten coverage and are already driving difficult prioritization decisions across South Sudan, as evidenced in the decision to suspend assistance for 4 months in Bentiu camp, reportedly due to a funding shortfall.”
In response to the latest FEWS NET projection that showed a decrease in the overall number of people experiencing acute food insecurity in 2024 compared to 2023, Oxfam said the 5.8 million people need more than food, “but good governance, just society and opportunities to thrive as we promote resilience programming.” Oxfam concluded by saying, “We are concerned that, should there be any gaps in funding and initiative to maintain peace across the country, the current gains will be entirely lost, and a relapse may be eminent.”
The severity of food security and livelihood needs are concentrated in the same areas most affected by flooding. Food security and nutrition funding should directly support women, and improving market access is critical.
Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)
After food security and livelihoods, WASH is another urgent need. An estimated 6.1 million people need WASH assistance in 2023.
People’s access to safe and improved water and sanitation is low. Around 42% of the population do not have access to an improved water source and 45% need to walk for more than 30 minutes to access a main water source.
Commonly reported issues in accessing WASH facilities include long lines and congestion at the water collection points. Additionally, women and girls frequently face physical and sexual assault and harassment at the water collection points, bathing areas and latrines.
According to the South Sudan 2023 HRP, “The first sectoral objective of the WASH Cluster is to contribute to reducing malnutrition. The WASH Cluster partners will integrate their response with nutrition partners to reduce the burden of WASH-related diseases as aggravating factors for malnutrition. This will improve food intake of malnourished children and contribute to the sustainability of health and nutrition objectives.”
In 2023, an estimated 5.6 million people need protection assistance. South Sudan remains in a protracted protection crisis, with women and girls continuously at risk of being attacked while carrying out their daily routines as they care for their families’ needs. Gender inequality and disability exclusion in the country allows for the continued marginalization of at-risk groups, particularly women, girls, LGBTQI+ individuals and people with disabilities.
Sexual abuse, rape and harassment of women and girls, including by armed forces, were key protection issues raised in interviews conducted in support of the 2022 HNO. The South Sudan 2023 HNO reported that “child protection and general protection needs have significantly increased since 2022.”
Women are at particular risk of sexual violence and gender-based violence (GBV). Additionally, the 2023 HNO said older persons and persons with disabilities were reportedly the most vulnerable demographic groups in terms of protection issues, barriers to services and access to assistance.
Ensuring the protection of affected people requires an understanding of protection mainstreaming principles. The South Sudan Protection Cluster provides information and updates on humanitarian partner activities.
Physical and mental health
South Sudan’s health system is among the poorest in the world. There is a severe shortage of trained health professionals. There are growing demands for basic health care services and flooding has threatened the already fragile health system in the country.
The arrival of thousands of people in South Sudan fleeing the conflict in neighboring Sudan strains the health system further and stretches humanitarian resources. The NGO Médecins Sans Frontières said in October 2023, “Many people, especially children, are arriving at the border with alarming health conditions, suffering from deadly diseases like measles or malnutrition that require immediate medical care.”
According to the 2023 HNO, “Limited functionality of health facilities, capacity and poor coverage, including recent closures of health facilities due to reduced funding, have made it difficult to meet increasing health needs worsened by floods, food insecurity and conflict. Women, children, the elderly and PWD are particularly vulnerable to the limited access to health care.”
In 2023, the Health Cluster will target 3.4 million people or 55.7% of the 6.1 million people in need of health services. Health Cluster priorities in 2023 include “improve equitable access to essential life-saving quality health services, including maternal, new-born, child and adolescent health and sexual and reproductive health, as well as treatment of common illnesses and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, disability, MHPSS-[mental health and psychosocial support] and GBV-related health services.”
The threat of disease is high among those fleeing the conflict in Sudan. Dr Ernest Apuktong, the Upper Nile state’s health minister said in June 2023, “The huge population of returnees and refugees has resulted in overcrowding at the transit sites, posing a serious risk of disease outbreaks.” In that same month, Save the Children warned that thousands of displaced children are at risk of cholera. Médecins Sans Frontières said in September 2023 that people in South Sudan faced a high number of malaria cases and limited access to healthcare.
On May 7, 2022, South Sudan’s Ministry of Health announced a cholera outbreak in Rubkona county in Unity State. As of March 23, 2023, 461 cholera cases, including two deaths, have been reported since the onset of the outbreak. From January 2022 to May 2023, at least 6,138 suspected measles cases, including 59 deaths were reported.
Years of conflict and the impact of COVID-19 have resulted in trauma and mental health conditions for a large proportion of the country’s population. Despite mental health and psychosocial concerns, access to mental health and psychosocial support remains lacking and is urgently needed along with life-skills education.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has a Global Recovery Fund that provides an opportunity for donors to meet the ongoing and ever-expanding challenges presented by global crises. CDP also has a Disaster Recovery Fund that provides the chance for donors to meet the needs of those affected by this displacement crisis in the U.S. and territories.
(Photo: IDPs in the capital of South Sudan relocate to a cleaner, drier location across town, under the protection of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. Source: UN Photo/Isaac Billy; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
If you are a responding NGO or a donor, please send updates on how you are working on this crisis to Tanya Gulliver-Garcia.
We welcome the republication of our content. Please credit the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.
If you are a donor looking for recommendations on how to help with this crisis, please email Regine A. Webster.
Philanthropic and government support
Grants from the philanthropic community vary in size, focus and sector. The following are examples of the diversity of philanthropy’s response:
- Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) provided $750,000 through its COVID-19 Response Fund to Save the Children for the Local Response Pooled Fund in South Sudan. This pooled funding mechanism transfers resources and decision-making power over funding decisions to local actors. The project will fund 11 South Sudanese organizations to meet the most critical COVID-19-related humanitarian needs in remote and hard-to-reach areas of the country.
- CDP provided $250,000 through its Global Recovery Fund to the Near East Foundation to provide immediate, life-saving support to at-risk, crisis-impacted people in South Sudan and Sudan. The project will reduce the risk of food insecurity, recover livelihoods and build resilience to future shocks through improved agricultural production, inclusive value chain development and access to finance.
- Open Road Alliance provided $100,000 to CORE Group to support their COVID-19 response.
- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $291,200 to Adeso to support the development and implementation of actions that promote exchange, sharing, learning and coordination of COVID-19 related topics.
- The UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women provided $206,769 to Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa to promote positive changes in attitudes, behaviors and practices to end sexual violence against women and girls in four camps for IDPs.
South Sudan’s 2023 HRP requested $1.7 billion to meet the needs of 6.8 million people targeted for assistance. As of Nov. 11, 2023, donors had funded just 53.8% of the 2023 HRP.. South Sudan’s 2023 RRRP requires $1.33 billion to meet the critical needs of more than 2.2 million refugees and asylum seekers and 1.89 million members of their hosting communities. The October 2023 Global Humanitarian Overview Update identified South Sudan’s regional response plan as one of 18 plans that have less funding recorded and less coverage of requirements than at the same time last year.
On July 7, 2022, the U.S. announced it would provide the country with an additional $117 million in humanitarian assistance. On Aug. 4, 2022, the U.S. announced an additional $106 million for the WFP. An investment of $43.5 million in youth development in the country was announced by the U.S. on Nov. 16, 2022. The U.S. Agency for International Development said on Feb. 22, 2023, that it would provide $3 million for agriculture resilience programs in South Sudan.
More ways to help
As with most disasters and emergencies, cash donations are recommended by disaster experts as they allow for on-the-ground agencies to direct funds to the most significant area of need, support economic recovery and ensure donation management does not detract from disaster recovery needs.
Donors can help in the following ways:
- Provide unrestricted core funding for vetted humanitarian NGO partners that support the 2022 HRP. This is an efficient way to ensure the best use of resources in a coordinated manner. Funding the NGOs that have contributed to the HRP ensures that resources are directed to support the plan and use humanitarian partners’ best knowledge.
- Prioritize investments in local organizations. Local humanitarian leaders and organizations play a vital role in providing immediate relief and setting the course for long-term equitable recovery in communities after a disaster or crisis. However, these leaders and organizations are mostly under-resourced and underfunded. Grant to locally-led entities as much as possible. When granting to trusted international partners with deep roots in targeted countries, more consideration should be given to those that empower local and national stakeholders.
- Understand that recovery is possible in protracted and complex crisis settings. Even while focusing on immediate needs, remember that there are early and long-term recovery needs, too. We know that people who have been affected by shocks in complex humanitarian contexts can recover and improve their situation without waiting until the crisis is over, which may take years. Recovery is possible, and funding will be needed for recovery efforts alongside humanitarian funding. Recovery will take a long time, and funding will be needed throughout.
- Recognize there are places and ways that private philanthropy can help that other donors may not. Private funders can support nimble and innovative solutions that leverage or augment the larger humanitarian system response, either filling gaps or modeling change that, once tested and proven, can be taken to scale within the broader humanitarian response structure. Philanthropy can also provide sustainable funding to national and local organizations.
Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
CHEs involve an acute emergency layered over ongoing instability. Multiple scenarios can cause CHEs, like the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the man-made political crisis in Venezuela, or the public health crisis in Congo.
Flooding is our nation’s most common natural disaster. Regardless of whether a lake, river or ocean is actually in view, everyone is at some risk of flooding. Flash floods, tropical storms, increased urbanization and the failing of infrastructure such as dams and levees all play a part — and cause millions (sometimes billions) of dollars in damage across the U.S. each year.
The Latin root of “resilience” means to bounce back, but every field has its own definition and most individuals within each discipline will define it differently. Learn more.