Responding to the U.N. declaration that famine in South Sudan has been aggravated by the conflict there between government and rebel forces, President Salva Kiir pledged Tuesday that aid workers would have free access to civilians throughout the country.

The fighting that has been going on in South Sudan since 2013 has left up to 100,000 people facing starvation, particularly in parts of Unity State, but Kiir said his government “will ensure that all humanitarian and development organizations have unimpeded access to needy populations across the country.”

Women and children are among the people most affected by famine conditions.

Help for farmers?

Kiir has promised in the past to give aid workers unfettered access to needy populations. However, Eugene Owusu, the U.N. coordinator of humanitarian efforts in South Sudan, said insecurity has made it impossible for aid workers to deliver assistance to remote areas of the country.

“I would like to use this opportunity to call on the government, the warring parties and all actors to support humanitarians to provide the necessary access so we can continue to bring lifesaving services to those in need and also provide opportunity for those in need to live a life of dignity,” Owusu said.

Kiir says his government also is trying to organize assistance for farmers struggling under famine conditions.

“The government is aware of the failure of crops last year in the region, and so steps are being taken to mitigate a potential famine there,” the president said Tuesday. “Toward this end, the government will increase the supply of basic food commodities in the area with a provision for subsidized prices.”

Situation is urgent

U.N. humanitarian workers estimate that about 5 million people — nearly half of South Sudan’s population — are “severely food insecure,” due to the combined effects of the fighting, drought and hyperinflation. Pierre Vauthier, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s deputy country representative for South Sudan, says the situation needs urgent attention.

“We need to scale up widespread assistance in the coming months if we don’t want the situation worsening and deteriorating again,” Vauthier said. “If nothing is done, half of the population is going to be at risk of malnutrition and food insecurity,” and the death rate will rise.

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