Almost eight million people in South Sudan, or two-thirds of the population in the deeply troubled country, are at risk of severe hunger, the United Nations warned on Thursday.
The misery in one of the poorest nations on the planet is being compounded by widespread flooding which has now affected more than one million people, according to the UN.
The world's youngest country has grappled with deadly conflict, natural disasters, economic malaise and relentless political infighting since it won independence from Sudan in 2011.
"Hunger and malnutrition are on the rise across the flood, drought, and conflict-affected areas of South Sudan, with some communities likely to face starvation if humanitarian assistance is not sustained and climate adaptation measures are not scaled-up," the UN said.
In a joint report, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN children's fund UNICEF and the World Food Programme said the proportion of people facing high levels of food insecurity and malnourishment "is at the highest level ever", surpassing levels seen even during the conflict in 2013 and 2016.
The report said 7.76 million people are likely to face acute food insecurity during the April-July 2023 lean season while 1.4 million children will be malnourished.
- 'Famine prevention mode' -
The report blamed a combination of conflict, poor macroeconomic conditions, extreme climate events, and spiralling costs of food and fuel as well as a decline in funding for humanitarian programmes.
"We've been in famine prevention mode all year and have staved off the worst outcomes, but this is not enough," Makena Walker, acting country director for WFP in South Sudan, said in a statement.
"South Sudan is on the frontlines of the climate crisis and day in, day out families are losing their homes, cattle, fields and hope to extreme weather," Walker said.
"Without humanitarian food assistance, millions more will find themselves in an increasingly dire situation and unable to provide even the most basic food for their families."
South Sudan has spent more than half of its life as a nation at war, with nearly 400,000 people dying during a five-year civil war that ended in 2018.
Famine was declared in South Sudan in 2017 in Leer and Mayendit counties in Unity State, areas that have often been a flashpoint for violence.
South Sudan's Agriculture and Food Security Minister Josephine Lagu said the latest findings presented at a briefing in Juba were "worrying" but that the government had to focus on peace building to resolve the crisis.
In August, the country's leaders announced, to the dismay of the international community, that they were extending a transitional government two years beyond a deadline agreed under a 2018 peace deal.
Lagu told reporters the move was aimed at giving "more time to stabilise the country".
"If we can actually achieve peace across the country including the current areas where there are hotspots... we will be halfway really to addressing the issues of food insecurity, so peace building is paramount."
In another report issued on Thursday, the UN's humanitarian response agency OCHA said that more than one million people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in 36 counties as well as Abyei, a disputed region between South Sudan and Sudan.
"The ongoing flood response is hampered by renewed violence and insecurity, inaccessibility due to impassable roads, broken bridges, flooded airstrips, the lack of air assets, the lack of critical core pipeline supplies and funding constraints," it said.
It cited media reports that the government of neighbouring Uganda may open dams on the White Nile to relieve congesting, warning that if the water is released, "it will likely exacerbate flooding downstream in South Sudan".