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Lessons on Catastrophic Risk Management From South Sudan’s Looming Famine


Refugees queue for water in the Jamam camp, South Sudan. Photo by: Robert Stansfield/Department for International Development‬

Rick Noack with the Washington Post recently penned an article titled “Experts are predicting a famine in South Sudan. Why can’t we stop it?” In the article, Noack explores the dire situation in the world’s newest nation. South Sudan, in the midst of an ongoing conflict, now faces the threat of famine. There are warning signs that the famine will endanger the lives of millions, yet actions to avert the crisis do not seem commensurate to the scale of the risk. As Noack states: “The problem is that South Sudan is following a standard pattern for these kinds of problems: The help only really arrives once it’s too late.”

The situation in South Sudan certainly deserves more immediate attention and response. It is also worth considering what can be learned from this situation about risk management in general. Below are some quotes pulled from Noack’s article on why the international response to the South Sudan crisis is insufficient, as well as basic lessons drawn from those quotes that are transferable to managing others kinds of catastrophic risks, including those associated with climate change.

“There are a variety of warning systems that monitor indications for potential famines. Factors observed include weather forecasts, rainfall, crop production, forage cover, food prices and socioeconomic indicators such as human migration.”

Lesson: There are systems in place to monitor risks, and to predict future risks, so a lack of information is not a primary cause of inaction.

“The author of the report, Rob Bailey, told The Post that “decision-makers perceive significant downside risks from funding early action,” such as the possibility of money being diverted to hostile groups. Hence, foreign governments often wait until the last moment to provide funding – making it likely to come too late. In the early phases of a crisis, the pressure on decision-makers is low because public awareness is similarly low.”

Lesson: The benefits of funding early action outweigh the risks of funding not reaching its intended target or being used effectively – the political will to make that case is crucial.

“On Wednesday, the U.S. government provided $180 million to South Sudan. It is the leading donor of humanitarian assistance to the country, having spent a total of more than $636 million in Southern Sudanese humanitarian assistance in fiscal 2014, according to Matthew Herrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development…According to Herrick, the government of South Sudan and the opposition have utterly failed and put millions of people on the brink of famine. Only their commitment to true peace, reconciliation, and accountability will end this crisis and give donors access to the affected conflict areas.”

Lesson: Funding in the absence of governance, and a commitment from the host government to manage the risks, is insufficient.

“Responding to disasters retroactively not only endangers many more lives, it can also cost more money. “An early response would require comparatively fewer resources and would allow agencies involved to save more lives and prevent a catastrophe,” Joyce Luma, the South Sudan Country Director of the U.N. World Food Program, explains.

Lesson: Early and preventive responses are better than post-facto responses.

The point here is not to distract from the famine situation in South Sudan, but to learn important lessons about managing future catastrophic events of different types, including those associated with climate change.

Read more: Rob Bailey’s report “Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action” (Chatham House, 2013), which is cited by Noack, offers an extensive look at why we fail to respond appropriately to famines, and a list of recommendations for how the management of famine risks can be improved. For a full list of findings, lessons and recommendations for avoiding famine, read the full report. From our perspective, most of the findings in the report apply to managing climate risks as well.

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