AKOBO, Sudan - The U.N. mission in Sudan is calling this dusty town of straw huts the "hungriest place on earth," and scenes of skeletal children and elderly people who are too weak to even walk tell of impending tragedy.
Two years of failed rains and tribal clashes in the outlying regions have laid the foundation for Africa's newest humanitarian crisis. The World Food Program quadrupled its assistance levels from January to March and is now feeding 80,000 people in the area.
But even so, skeletal children with pencil-thin arms, exposed ribs and distended stomachs filled a hospital ward Thursday, while just outside the town of Akobo in southern Sudan elderly villagers lay helpless in the shade, too frail to walk.
International aid agencies are bracing for the worst. Even if spring rains materialize this year, the harvest won't come in until fall.
"And if there is no rain, it will get worse," said Dr. Galiek Galou, one of three doctors at the town hospital.
"If you stay here for a week you'll have problems, even if you have money," he said. "There is nothing to buy."
In one of the wards in the hospital, about 10 tiny infants and young children lie almost motionless, their ribs showing and their faces gaunt. Even the face of three-day old Odong Obong looked shriveled, like that of a tiny elderly man. With worried mothers sitting nearby, these emaciated children may be only the leading edge of a looming famine.
The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children. They found 253 that they have classified as severely malnourished, meaning that they will die without immediate intervention. The children are now enrolled in a feeding program that relies primarily on fortified peanut butter.
A recent survey by the two groups found that almost 46 percent of children in the region are malnourished. Lise Grande, the top U.N. official in southern Sudan, labeled the Akobo region as the hungriest place on earth. She noted that most humanitarian agencies regard a malnutrition rate of 15 percent to be an emergency threshold.
"This year 4.3 million people in southern Sudan will need some sort of food assistance," Grande said. "That could be as much as nearly half of the population in the south. When you have that many people who need food you can see the dimensions of the crisis we're trying to address here."
Akobo is in southeastern Sudan on the border with Ethiopia. The isolated region suffers from tribal warfare that has displaced almost 400,000 people.
Southern Sudan lies in a drought-prone belt of Africa but the situation there has been exacerbated by rising intertribal violence that has claimed more than 2,000 lives in 2009. A budget crunch on the government of southern Sudan because of the financial crisis means fewer available resources.
The food crisis is also a legacy of a devastating north-south civil war of over 21 years that left 2 million people dead and many more displaced. That conflict is separate from the war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.