South Sudan food crisis: Surviving on water lilies

media captionThe BBC'S Emmanuel Igunza reports on the looming threat of famine in South Sudan

The BBC's Emmanuel Igunza visits a South Sudanese village where people have resorted to eating water lilies, amid fears that a famine is looming.

It is early morning in Reke village, a settlement of about 3,000 people displaced by fighting between government and rebel forces in the oil-rich Unity state.

There were heavy rains overnight and the village, about 650km (400 miles) north-west of the capital Juba, is only accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Some children are playing in an open area. In one corner, a group of women are building a makeshift hut, known as Tukul, with sticks and reeds collected from a nearby river.

Elsewhere in the village, an elderly woman is seated outside a smoky Tukul. She smiles brightly as we approach her, and removes a pipe, lights it and blows out a huge puff of smoke, as her neighbours cheer her on.

image captionWomen grind lily seeds before cooking them
image captionMore than 1.5 million people have fled their homes because of the fighting
image copyrightKieran Doherty/Oxfam
image captionMany children are malnourished

"I have nothing much to do, I am miserable, but that will not prevent me from enjoying this smoke," she tells me through a translator.

The smiles and laughter in Reke betray the suffering of the community.

'Facing starvation'

Most of them are from the Nuer ethnic group, to which rebel leader Riek Machar belongs.

President Salva Kiir, who comes from the rival Dinka group, accused him of plotting a coup in December.

image copyrightAFP
image captionSouth Sudan's president Salva Kiir is at war with rebels

Mr Machar denied the allegation, but then marshalled a rebel force to fight Mr Kiir.

More than 1.5 million people have been displaced by the clashes and the UN has warned that South Sudan is on the verge of a famine.

With the rainy season, many roads have been cut off and food is hard to come.

In Reke, people depend on food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP), but they say deliveries are rare.

"WFP has been really helping out people here in Reke, but that is maybe only once every two months. See how hungry people are here. They are facing starvation," one man tells me.

image captionWFP battles to get food aid to people because of bad roads
image copyrightWFP/Norad
image captionPeople desperately wait for food air drops

The people in Reke are now surviving on water lilies from a nearby river. They collect the seeds, grind them and mix them with water, and then cook them for a meal.

The UN says at least four million people are facing starvation after farmers missed the planting season.

Experts have warned that South Sudan will most probably face a severe famine by the end of the year or early next year.

South Sudan is the world's newest state, becoming independent in 2011 after a decades-long war with the north.

'Walking for six hours'

A few kilometres from Reke, we come to a health clinic where children with severe malnutrition are treated.

Since fighting broke out in December, the clinic run by the International Rescue Committee has been treating up to 16 children every week.

But the number has been falling, says clinical officer Peter Manyang.

"Right now we have six children we are treating here. We are not sure whether things are improving or it's because of the rains and there is no access," he tells me.

"There is no road, no transport from the village. So you find some are walking six hours to come to the health centre here. Some could not make it here, like the disabled. It's only those who are strong who can carry their children to the centre," Mr Manyang adds.

image copyrightAFP
image captionBoth the government forces and the rebels have been accused of committing war crimes

One of the children being treated at the clinic is one-year-old Stephen Nyamod.

His mother, Veronica Nyamod, walked for more than four hours to bring him here two weeks ago.

Despite the treatment he has received so far, he is not improving. Doctors say his weight has reduced yet again. He weighs only 5kg (11 pounds). His legs are thin and he is crying as doctors examine him. His 33-year-old mother tries to soothe him.

"I only want him to get better. I am lucky we got to the clinic in time. We didn't have enough food back in the village. There are so many other sick and malnourished children there," she says.

The children's agency Unicef has warned that up to 50,000 children could die of malnutrition by the end of the year if they do not receive help.

Getting that help to remote villages is anything but easy. Many people have fled the fighting and are now living in bushes.

Meanwhile, aid agencies are in a rush against time to deliver tonnes of food and medical supplies to those displaced by the unrest.

And with no end in sight to the violence, they fear that an already bad situation can only get worse.

"There are great challenges, in particular the security situation and the roads are impassable. In many places, people have had no access to any kind of support since the conflict broke out," says Unicef spokeswoman Doune Porter.

image captionFighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in December 2013. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
image captionSudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
image captionBoth Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north.
image captionThe two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
image captionAfter gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
image captionJust 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however, this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
image captionAlmost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight. This compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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