By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of people in South Sudan are on the brink of starvation with many living in swamps and surviving on water lilies and goat bones, a senior aid worker has said.
A hunger crisis affecting an estimated 4.8 million people could turn catastrophic unless aid is urgently stepped up, MercyCorps country director Deepmala Mahla warned.
"The situation is dire," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "There are 40,000 people at risk of dying due to hunger and numbers could go up very quickly if we don't get our act together.
"It doesn't take much time for a crisis to become a catastrophe. It's a race against time."
In the capital Juba, vegetable traders are now cutting tomatoes in half to sell because some customers can no longer afford to buy a whole tomato, Mahla said.
The crisis has been fueled by nearly three years of war which has killed thousands, uprooted more than 2 million people and disrupted markets. Inflation is at 661 percent - the highest rate in the world, Mahla said.
The fighting pits supporters loyal to President Salva Kiir against allies of his former deputy, Riek Machar. The pair signed a shaky peace deal a year ago but violence continues.
SHOOTINGS AND RAPES
Mahla said the difficulties of delivering aid in a country the size of France with just 200 km (125 miles) of paved road were compounded by increasing assaults on aid workers.
South Sudan had more attacks on aid workers than any other country last year, including shootings, rapes and mass lootings. At least 57 aid workers have been killed since the end of 2013 and many more are missing.
Mahla said a horrifying attack on a residential complex in Juba in July when armed men killed one person and carried out gang rapes and mock executions during a four-hour rampage had sent shockwaves through the humanitarian community.
"The risk to aid workers has never been higher," she added. "Intrusions into compounds are common. We're living in constant fear. After the attack in July nobody could sleep - it could have been any one of us.
"But while we grieve for our colleagues we are pushing forward, perhaps with an even stronger resolve."
She said the attacks were depriving the most vulnerable people in the country of help and called on all parties to ensure that aid agencies can operate in safety.
"There have been promises on protecting aid workers in the past. Those have been broken multiple times - please don't break them any more," she said in an interview in London late on Monday.
Across South Sudan many people have been uprooted multiple times meaning they cannot farm their land, Mahla said.
A third of children are out of school with girls being pulled out first to be married off in exchange for cows.
MercyCorps is providing shelter supplies, water, sanitation and education to the displaced and helping families re-establish livelihoods when they return home.
Mahla said the worst of the hunger is in the south of Unity State where people have moved deep into swamp areas.
"People have been surviving for weeks, maybe months just eating water lilies. People are also cooking goat skin and bones because there is nothing else," she said.
Mahla said the hunger crisis was a tragedy in a country as fertile as South Sudan which should, with the right support, not only be able to feed everyone but also earn money from exports.
"It breaks my heart because this country has so much potential," she said.
"There's huge scope for agriculture. South Sudanese honey, hibiscus tea and coffee could be in the supermarkets in London – the potential is very much there. But these things are not possible if people are always running for their lives."
(Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)