UNICEF: South Sudan famine a man-made catastrophe

South Sudan is a country in crisis - a combination of famine, conflict and disease is threatening the lives of millions. As the former head of UNICEF's South Sudan operation, Jonathan Veitch is one of the world's top authorities on the challenges facing that country. He spoke with UNICEF NZ about the desperate situation in the Horn of Africa, and what needs to be done.

OPINION: It's one of the hardest situations in the world for a child growing up in a country like South Sudan.

Since the war restarted in 2013 we've had recurring violence, displacements, recruitment of children recruited into armed forces, schools and hospitals attacked and destroyed, and multiple outbreaks of disease including cholera.

Now, famine.

As soon as famine is announced it's already catastrophic. Famine is extremely rare, and a very technical term. It's not nature taking its course, this is very much a man-made situation as a result of conflict.

Famine can only be announced when more than 20 percent of the population is extremely food insecure - no access to food, no idea where they're going to get their next meal. You have to have severe malnutrition of over 30 percent. The last criteria is mortality rates of two people dying for every 10,000 per day.

In some respects it's a final warning - you have to take additional action to prevent famine spreading, and to prevent children dying. By the time it was announced in Somalia in 2010, up to 100,000 people had already died.

The advantage in South Sudan is we already have the systems in place, people on the ground, the technical know-how, and the practice over many years of dealing with malnutrition in conflict zones.

We have rapid response teams who try to go in with helicopters, because this is one of the most inaccessible areas in the world. During the rainy season you can't get there at all. There are no paved roads, so you have to go by boat along the Nile or fly in with helicopters. Our main partner, World Food Programme, drops food from aircraft and UNICEF is there for looking at acute malnutrition, treating children for disease.

It's an expensive operation but it's worth doing because the results are incredible once you can get in there and save children's lives.

A malnourished child doesn't usually die of starvation. Unfortunately they'll probably succumb to something else - diarrheal disease, malaria, measles. We try and ensure we're giving deworming, vitamin A, oral rehydration salts, clean water, and giving the mothers of those children ways to protect their child and make sure they can survive.

It's devastating when you see families, and particularly mothers, who don't know where their child's next meal is coming from.

South Sudan famine United Nations
Women wait to be registered prior to a food distribution from the UN World Food Programme in Thonyor, South Sudan (Reuters)

It's very traumatic to witness, but it's even more traumatic for that family. Sometimes we've been into villages in South Sudan and you can see they're boiling wild leaves they've collected, or lilies from the river Nile, or other products they've scavenged that have no nutritional value at all just to try and fill the bellies of their children.

We can prevent the famine from spreading if we can get in there and ensure that food, aid and medical help arrives in a timely fashion.

But there has to be access, and that means that fighting has to stop. It's not acceptable that during a situation like this, when humanitarian aid is absolutely critical, that fighting continues, displacement continues and these families suffer even more.

They're the most resilient people on Earth, but some of these families have been displaced four or five times. When that happens and there's no clinics, there's no clean water, and you're unable to plant, then their resilience and coping mechanisms have been completely depleted.

There are many positives - we've managed to get more than 350,000 children back into school, vaccination has taken place, preventing diseases such as polio and measles, but it's a challenging environment.

It's a very big task ahead of us. We're warning about potential famine in other countries including Somalia, parts of Ethiopia, Yemen and Northern Nigeria - about 1.4m children are in need of support for severe malnutrition.

We should all look after children wherever they are, and we all know there are vulnerable children in New Zealand. But there are systems in place in New Zealand - a strong Government with institutions that should be able to deal with most of those cases.

It shouldn't take away from the fact that children on the other side of the world are dying right now as a result of conflict, displacement and severe malnutrition.

We have to act.

We should always have hope - and there is hope - even in a place like South Sudan. In 2016 alone more than 200,000 children with severe acute malnutrition were treated.

We've never thought a job is too big or too hard to deal with.

That's never happened before and should never happen, because every single child's life is absolutely critical.