South Sudan went to the polls yesterday to vote on whether to secede from the north, the culmination of a peace process that ended decades of civil war. Balloting will last a week, but it appears a foregone conclusion that the country will vote for independence.
No one is sure, however, what the aftermath of that decision will look like. Many analysts have focused on the political challenges of disentangling the two countries, from citizenship rights to currency to oil resources. Less frequently mentioned but potentially more destabilising is the prospect of a serious humanitarian crisis. Such a crisis could be caused by violent clashes, but if history is a guide, it is more likely to be caused by food shortages.
Already, south Sudan faces dire rates of malnutrition. In 2009, 47 per cent of the population suffered from food deprivation, according to the National Baseline Household Survey. This rate is more than twice the average for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. While the north faces its own problems, the challenges in the south are significantly higher.
Many signs point to an increase in food insecurity in 2011. For one, south Sudan does not have a strategic grain reserve. Two years ago, drought pushed south Sudan to the brink of famine. In 2010, good rains increased yields of key crops, including sorghum and millet. Overall, the number of people reliant on food aid decreased. But there is not enough grain to store for later this year, and even if there was, south Sudan lacks the facilities for large-scale storage.
As a result, southern Sudanese are dependent on two things: the weather, and the market. If it rains the right amount, the harvests will be good. If it doesn't, they will go hungry. The market is more complicated: it can offset favourable weather. Right now, despite the good harvests of late 2010, grain prices remain higher than normal. Traders in major markets have left ahead of the referendum, and it is unclear when they will return. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network reports that prices will remain high until August.
In south Sudan, June to August is traditionally known as the "hunger season". Most countries in the region experience a "hunger season", but this year, south Sudan's is likely to coincide with a population influx. Roughly 400,000 southerners living in the north have registered their intention to return to the south.
The government is unlikely to have the capacity or the funds to handle increased food insecurity in the next year. After the referendum, as the prospect of a food crisis looms, government officials will be occupied with political questions on border demarcation, the division of oil and water resources and the status of the disputed area of Abyei.
Equally important, though, is the question of how to boost south Sudan's agriculture productivity. More than 80 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture for its livelihood. And there is the potential to substantially increase production. Much of south Sudan's land is arable, particularly in the southwestern "greenbelt", but only 4 per cent of arable land is currently being farmed. Some Africa experts believe south Sudan has the potential to become a regional breadbasket.
To do so, the government needs to invest in infrastructure - not just roads, but a national agriculture research agency and an agriculture extension service. A research agency could develop seeds to thrive in south Sudan's agro-ecological zones. An extension service could provide education and training to farmers on how to use fertiliser, disease prevention for livestock and the benefits of planting new seed varieties.
But the government cannot build a thriving agriculture sector on its own. It will need the assistance of development partners like USAID and the World Food Program, as well as nongovernmental organisations such as the Bangladesh-based development organisation BRAC and World Vision. Most importantly, it needs the support of the private sector. Banks need to increase their agriculture lending, and successful seed companies and fertiliser distributors in Uganda and Kenya need to enter the south Sudan market.
Some of these actors have already started to work on agriculture. The World Bank currently has a $42 million (Dh154.3 million) project to increase agriculture productivity in five states in south Sudan. USAID is ramping up its agriculture projects in the area (it held a conference on the topic in August 2010 in Nairobi). BRAC has a project with 4,000 small-holder farmers to provide them with tools and education.
The south's government recognises the importance of agriculture. Dr Ann Itto Leonardo, the minister of agriculture, said recently: "We need to change the current dependency syndrome of over relying on food imported from neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and others. The government remains committed towards reversing these trends for the benefit of our people." She is leading an effort to develop a new agriculture extension policy.
Yet if south Sudan faces a food crisis this year, the outcome of this week's voting will push the burden onto to shoulders of a young government. To cope, south Sudan will need to seek assistance from international partners, as well as its neighbours. Kenya and Uganda, in particular, have a vested interest in helping.
With an intense focus on agriculture development, south Sudan could eventually export food to Kenya and Uganda. That prospect is years away, while the next hunger season begins in five months.
Stephanie Hanson is the director of policy and outreach at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organisation that operates in Kenya and Rwanda