A record number of people in South Sudan face a critical lack of food. A new report by the government and the United Nations says almost seven million people, or more than 60% of the population, are at risk.
The report released Friday says almost two million people are near starvation nine months after a peace deal ended a five-year civil war. The report stops short of declaring a famine.
The deteriorating situation is attributed to food shortages exacerbated by delayed rainfall, South Sudan's economic crisis and years of strain from a conflict that killed almost 400,000 people.
Some South Sudanese, including children, have told The Associated Press they eat only once a day.
The World Food Program country director in South Sudan, Ronald Sibanda, said the crisis coincides with the current rainy season. "The race is now against time and nature," he said.
WFP says it has positioned 173,000 metric tons of food across the East African country, more than at this point last year.
The new report says 25 counties in South Sudan face severe hunger with 21,000 people in Jonglei, Lakes and Upper Nile states on the verge of starvation.
Breaking the hunger cycle depends in part on whether the fragile peace deal signed in September will hold. While fighting has subsided, clashes continue in Central Equatoria state between the government and rebel groups that didn't sign the agreement.
In May the government and opposition delayed by six months the next key step in the peace deal, the formation of a unity government, amid concerns about security. Progress on other parts of the deal remains slow, observers say.
Late last month the U.N. Security Council extended an arms embargo and other sanctions against South Sudan over objections from African nations, Russia and China that the measure won't help promote peace.
Also last month Pope Francis, who in a remarkable gesture earlier this year kissed the feet of South Sudan's rival leaders to encourage the peace process, said he may add a South Sudan leg to his Africa trip in September if conditions there are "mature."
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