As famine and violence loom, is this South Sudan's last chance for peace?

Peace talks start again today in Addis Ababa between government and rebel forces as aid agencies say a famine for hundreds of thousands is on the horizon.

Andreea Campeanu/REUTERS
People walk through the mud in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp inside the United Nations base in Malakal, South Sudan, July 25, 2014.

With a season of unplanted crops in South Sudan and the United Nations declaring the food security crisis here “the worst in the world,” time is running out to prevent the death by starvation of as many as 50,000 people, analysts say, caught in what is now a seven month civil war.

Diplomats in the neighboring Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa today aim to restart negotiations to get government and rebel forces in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, to stop fighting – even as analysts worry the proliferation of militia groups has put much of the fighting beyond the control of political leaders.

More than 10,000 people have died and 1.5 million are displaced since deep animosity between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar broke into violence last December.

Farmers missed the planting season this spring due to fighting and aid groups are now struggling to reach hungry people, many of whom are caught in out-of-the-way places.

Aid agencies warn of famine before the end of the year if nothing is done to avert it. But already every day children are dying from malnutrition. Relief teams, unable to transport food by road due to rain, mud, and insecurity, have resorted to helicoptering supplies to people trapped by fighting in remote areas.

Humanitarian aid workers here say feeding programs must scale up to reach 3.9 million people in coming months or 230,000 children are in danger of acute malnutrition. They also warn that with South Sudan's appeal for aid now running short a billion dollars, some life-saving programs will run out of funds by the end of September.

"There's no window. We have to take action right now," says Jonathan Veitch, South Sudan's head of UNICEF, the UN's child welfare agency. Mr. Veitch describes spiraling rates of malnutrition that are becoming already severe enough in some places to shortly be termed as famine areas. Under models used by aid agencies the resulting severe malnutrition could take some 50,000 lives, many of these children. 

Besides funds, aid groups need an outbreak of peace to reach those in need. But there's little optimism ahead of today’s negotiations in Addis Ababa, which are set to restart after a month off.

Two previous ceasefires in late winter and spring were broken hours after signing.

Fighting continued last week amid sharp worries that the myriad armed groups roaming the country are slipping beyond politicians' control.

"Six months ago we had two parties and their allied forces more or less clearly defined," says Casie Copeland, South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group. "Now we're in a situation where we have nearly two dozen different armed groups and community militias with shifting alliances, and there's real concern that if progress isn't made soon the situation is going to deteriorate so far that an agreement between the two parties would not be enough to end fighting on the ground."

The peace process, led by Ethiopia's prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, has moved slowly in order not to lose the scant leverage it has over belligerents. If these new talks fail, the prime minister and his team may have to turn up the heat. Hailemariam recently said today’s talks are "the final one" before imposing sanctions that might freeze the assets that South Sudan's leaders are thought to have stashed across East Africa

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