By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - If the fighting in South Sudan prevents people from planting crops over the next three months, the country will be headed for a humanitarian disaster, the humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations in South Sudan said on Tuesday.
The conflict in the world's youngest country erupted in December between troops backing President Salva Kiir and soldiers loyal to his sacked vice president, Riek Machar. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the violence in the oil-producing nation.
Although the warring parties agreed to a cessation of hostilities on January 23, fighting has continued in parts of South Sudan.
Toby Lanzer, the deputy U.N. special representative and humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, said it was crucial that the South Sudanese be able to plant their crops in March, April and May to ensure there is a harvest this year.
"Right now what the people of South Sudan, what the civilians need most, is the ability to move their cattle, tend to their fields and plant," he told Reuters in an interview. "And if they do, then the people of South Sudan can do an awful lot to help themselves weather this abominable situation."
"But if they can't, if violence continues - and there's a high risk of that in some of the key states, which are the most food insecure and which are the most prone to flooding - then the outlook for the humanitarian situation is very dire."
He said there were already 3.7 million people whose food supplies were not secure in South Sudan, an impoverished nation that split from Sudan in 2011, a figure that has tripled since December.
"If those people miss the planting season ... I think it would be fair to say that there will be a catastrophe," Lanzer said. "Not now, not next month, but there won't be a harvest at the end of this year if people haven't planted."
For this reason, he called on the warring parties to come to a "real ceasefire for the months of March, April and May."
East African states are considering sending troops into South Sudan to help enforce the fragile ceasefire deal between government forces and rebels, the IGAD East African regional bloc said on Tuesday, amid persistent accusations by both sides that the other is breaking the truce.
Fighting has spread further north in the Upper Nile state after the rebels seized the provincial capital, Malakal, last month, the U.N. children agency UNICEF has said, although the Juba government says it is in control of the state's oil fields.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, known as UNMISS, has been sheltering at its bases tens of thousands of civilians seeking refuge from the fighting.
Lanzer said that at one point in the conflict, the United Nations was sheltering 85,000 people, though that number has dropped to around 75,000. Most of those people are crammed into four UNMISS bases in cramped, difficult conditions, he said.
Lanzer, who addressed the United Nations' 193 member states on Tuesday, said he urged donor nations to speed up aid disbursements for South Sudan. In January, countries pledged $1.27 billion in emergency relief, though he said only around $300 million has been received to date.
(Editing by Ken Wills)