Children facing crippling hunger and malnutrition in Bentiu
UNICEF delivers life-saving aid in one of the most challenging environments in the world.
More than 110,000 people live in Bentiu – the largest Internally Displaced People camp in South Sudan. Surrounded by creeping floodwaters, with nowhere to go, all hope seems lost.
Hope has long faded from 12-year-old Kai’s eyes. Standing barefoot on a dumpsite on the outskirts of the camp in Bentiu, South Sudan, thick swarms of flies encircle him. Sewage collected from the camp runs alongside where he forages daily for food among rusted cans, containers holding remnants of hazardous chemicals and beaten car jacks. Kai searches deep inside a black plastic bag and pulls out a bottle to lick the last remaining drops of soft drink.
My brother and I collect things from the dump and sell them at the camp. We don’t have anything to eat. Today we only found these small bottles and we are hungry
Kai continues to turn over the rubble, searching for anything to feed his hunger.
In South Sudan, more than 60 per cent of the population are facing food insecurity, one in six young children are acutely malnourished, and communities continue to be impacted by violence.
“I haven’t seen my dad for many years as he was shot. I want to tell him this message. If my dad is OK, then he can come see us. I love my dad and I miss him.”
In late 2013, South Sudan descended into a violent civil war. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled their villages and sought protection in and around the bases of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan – known as UNMISS. They never went home.
Bentiu, capital of Unity State, is the largest Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp, home to about 112,000 people living in shelters made of elephant grass, corrugated tin sheeting, and plastic tarpaulins.
Inside the largest displacement camp in South Sudan
From the air, Bentiu looks like another planet or the set of a sci-fi film. The camp sits below water level on copper-coloured earth. UN diggers heave damp soil onto earthen dykes which protect against flooding and encircle the camp and residents. On 9 October, heavy rains and storms burst a dyke near the camp – disaster narrowly avoided as humanitarian agencies raced to patch it up. International teams have flushed water from the camp since September 2021 when extensive flooding wiped out crops, cattle and livelihoods across the State.
Children play in sewage-contaminated floodwaters harbouring snakes and waterborne diseases. Toilets with tape loosely wrapped around them signal that they are full, while washed out latrines are a breeding ground for cholera and mosquitos carrying malaria.
In the last decade, average temperatures in South Sudan have increased at twice the global average. As floods intensify, families have resorted to eating water lilies when food is scarce in the camp, drying them in the sun, grinding into a fine powder and blending with maize.
While communities in Bentiu live in fear of floods, those in the Horn of Africa, are facing a different humanitarian crisis – the region’s worst drought in 40 years. There, rains have failed for an unprecedented four consecutive seasons and famine is at the door. Across both Sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, the war in Ukraine is driving up the cost of raw materials and forcing increasing numbers of people into food insecurity. Children are the hardest hit.
The tell-tale signs of malnutrition in Bentiu
22-year-old Nyalel David shields her 7-month-old baby from the harsh sunlight with an orange and white checked cloth and makes the short walk to the clinic. Little Gatbany Peter is recovering from malnutrition and has been battling diarrhoea and fever.
There is not enough food, and there is little means of getting food here. My baby depends on RUTF to survive.
Globally, UNICEF provides 80 per cent of the world's life-saving ready-to-use-therapeutic food (RUTF), which saves the lives of thousands of children each year. In South Sudan alone, between January and August, UNICEF treated close to 190,000 severely acutely malnourished children.
A nurse wraps a malnutrition tape measure around Gatbany Peter’s upper arm, which reveals the colour red. He is in immediate danger with an upper arm circumference of just 11cm – his tiny body battling severe acute malnutrition. Scooping up Gatbany Peter in her arms, Nyalel rips open a sachet of the peanut butter-like therapeutic food and quickly settles her son. RUTF is an energy dense, micronutrient paste made using peanuts, sugar, milk powder, oil, vitamins and minerals. It has a shelf life of two years and doesn’t require refrigeration, even after opening. Just two or three sachets a day for six to eight weeks will save Gatbany Peter’s life.
Meanwhile other mothers and malnourished babies wait patiently in the shade as the temperature climbs above 40 degrees. 25-year-old Nyakume volunteers in the UNICEF nutrition tent.
“Survival is not easy at the camp,” says Nyakume. “I collect firewood, and sell it to buy food, but many families and children are hungry.”
Nyakume arrived at the camp in 2015 after her village came under attack. “Soldiers entered the cattle camp and I was only wearing a thin dress. I ran with my Uncle and my cousin, but they were killed in front of my eyes.” Seven years on, Nyakume cannot return home as the village is submerged under water, and violence across South Sudan continues to tear families apart.
The violence continues
Eleven years on from when South Sudan marked its independence and became the youngest country in the world, violence continues in parts of the country. Inside the camp, blue helmeted UN peacekeepers patrol the barbed-wire fences, but it’s not just communities they need to protect.
South Sudan is one of the most violent contexts to be an aid worker in the world. In mid-September, a UN aid worker was fatally shot inside a tented hospital, next to a UNICEF nutrition centre in Bentiu Town. Patients at the hospital were treated outside as remnants of blood stains lingered on the tarpaulin floors. Across Unity State and elsewhere, children and families endure the unimaginable, with gender based violence and violence against children at unacceptable rates.
Delivering life-saving aid never stops
At a closely guarded UNICEF warehouse in Juba, boxes of therapeutic food, health supplies, dignity kits, water and sanitation and medical supplies are tightly wrapped and ready to be distributed across the country.
Delivering the aid is challenging, but UNICEF never gives up. The majority of UNICEF’s humanitarian supplies need to be delivered by air, as road convoys, ports and boats can be attacked and looted. Less than two per cent of the roads in South Sudan are paved, leaving huge swathes of the country cut off for much of the year during the rainy season. Massive distributions of emergency supplies are prepositioned in the dry season to ensure there is aid for children available year-round, but funds are running out as the need increases.
The global hunger crisis is pushing one child into severe malnutrition every minute in 15 crisis-hit countries, including in South Sudan. More than 8.9 million people including 4.5 million children need humanitarian assistance, and 11 years after gaining independence, South Sudan remains one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
These life-saving nutrition supplies have been made available thanks to the support from the German corporation through the KFW Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO). Other humanitarian responses for health, education, WASH, and child protection are supported by the World Bank, the European Union, AfDB, GPE, Governments of Germany, Sweden, UK, Canada, Sweden, Norway and UNICEF National Committees.