Nearly seven million people - the highest number ever - are facing severe food shortages in South Sudan due delayed seasonal rains and record low stocks, three United Nations agencies warned on Friday.
An estimated 6.96 million South Sudanese will face "acute levels of food insecurity or worse" by the end of July said an assessment issued by South Sudan's government together with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Food Programme and the UN Children's Fund.
"The hunger season coincides with the rainy season and that's a perfect storm in South Sudan," said Ronald Sibanda, WFP's Country Director in South Sudan.
"As we ramp up our response, the race is now against time and nature - we must act now to save the lives and livelihoods of the millions on the brink of starvation," Sibanda added.
The delayed onset of seasonal rains combined with record low stocks after last year's poor harvest, persistent economic instability, the effects of decades of conflict, population displacements, market disruption, high transport costs and a weakened currency have impacted livelihoods and food security, FAO said in a statement.
"FAO is working with returning farmers to assist them to resettle, build assets and adapt to changing rainfall patterns. But there is still much work to be done to increase their ability to deal with such shocks in a sustainable manner," said Meshack Malo, FAO Representative in South Sudan.
The effective implementation of South Sudan's peace agreement and political stability are essential to boost humanitarian aid and agricultural production across the country if lives are to be saved, according to FAO.
"Much work needs to be done. The recovery of food production and increase of yields in South Sudan are reliant on the maintenance of peace, and must be given a chance," Malo said.
Greater stability has boosted access to people in need, allowing UNICEF to treat over 100,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition in the first five months of the year, more than 90 percent of who have recovered, said Unicef's Representative in South Sudan, Mohamed Ag Ayoya.
"But malnutrition levels remain critical in many areas and our fear is that the situation could worsen in the coming months," Ag Ayoya said.
FAO said it is providing new varieties of seeds suited to local conditions and training in techniques that will reduce losses from drought and flooding. Besides supporting 800,000 vulnerable farming, fishing and agro-pastoral households with vegetable and crop seeds, agricultural tools and fishing equipment, FAO is vaccinating animals and offering other veterinary services to help livestock keepers, the UN agency said.
UNICEF and partners will further scale up services during the lean season to reach more children affected by severe acute malnutrition, expanding its programme through two key methods, the agency said.
UNICEF and its partners can remain long-term in areas with good humanitarian access, while so-called Integrated Rapid Response missions will be used to reach people in insecure and inaccessible areas, the agency added.
More than 100,000 children affected by severe acute malnutrition are expected to receive assistance during the peak lean season, UNICEF said.
As part of its response, WFP will provide up to 5.1 million people with a variety of support including life-saving food and cash distributions in areas with functioning markets, food in return for work on the construction and rehabilitation of community assets, food for school meals, and special products to prevent and treat malnutrition in children, and pregnant or nursing women.
WFP has prepositioned 173,000 metric tons of food in more than 60 areas ahead of the onset of the rainy season, 66,000 metric tons more than the same time last year. Pre-positioning not only helps to save lives but reduces delivery costs, the agency said.