October 31, 2014 / 5:13 PM / 3 years ago

South Sudan famine temporarily averted, but risks remain: U.N.

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Aid and some small harvests have helped stave off a feared famine in South Sudan, but any more fighting there could still leave millions facing severe hunger next year, a senior World Food Program (WFP) official said on Friday.

The United Nations had warned in May that up to 4 million people would be on the brink of starvation by the end of 2014, after months of clashes threatened harvests and shut down aid programs.

Development agencies launched a huge appeal and the response, together with rainfall, meant that "what was speculated about famine ... (has been) temporarily averted," WFP's South Sudan deputy country director, Eddie Rowe, told Reuters.

About 10,000 people have died and more than a million have been displaced since fighting broke out between President Salva Kiir's government forces and rebels allied to his former deputy Riek Machar in December last year.

Earlier this week rebels attacked Unity State capital Bentiu, shattering months of relative calm during the rainy season when sodden roads make fighting and movement of equipment almost impossible.

Diplomats have said the arrival of the dry season next month could trigger more fighting despite both sides committing to a ceasefire in May.

A previous ceasefire was repeatedly violated in the impoverished country which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict.

Rowe said recent harvests in the three states worst-hit by the violence -- Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile -- had been limited, meaning home-grown food could soon start running low.

"The amount of food that will be available at household level would be exhausted by December or January and that means you will have a substantial number of people who would go without food as of January up to March based on the projections and indicators that we are collecting," he from South Sudan's capital by phone.

Any more violence would hamper efforts to get help to those areas, he added.

"If fighting escalates, particularly in the three conflict affected states, then we would not be able to deploy staff and our partners into these locations, which would mean we would not be able to provide food assistance to large numbers of individuals," he said.

Rowe said in the last few months of this year between 2.5-2.7 million people are expected to be in crisis and emergency phases three and four on a five-point Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale where five is famine.

But the number of people in those two phases was projected to rise to 3.7 million in the first three months of 2015, he added.

Rowe also called for the return of a WFP employee who was abducted two weeks ago in South Sudan's Upper Nile region. He said harassment of aid workers was on the rise, a trend which could also worsen the humanitarian crisis.

Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by George Obulutsa and Andrew Heavens

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