NYAL, South Sudan (AP) -- Desperate South Sudan villagers, fleeing fighting across the country, are eating grass and roots to survive as the World Food Program starts costly air drops of food to northern parts of the country.
But the air drops, three times more expensive than road deliveries, are straining the ramped-up humanitarian response because only a third of the U.N.'s requested $1.27 billion has been raised for the crisis.
The WFP's top official, executive director Ertharin Cousin, visited Nyal in Unity state on Tuesday before heading on Wednesday to the Ethiopian border town of Gambela, a town overwhelmed by nearly 70,000 South Sudanese fleeing the fighting, which started in December.
A massive Ilyushin plane has started dropping more than 30 tons of food in the northern states. Each drop provides at least 15 days of rations for 18,000 people, intended to help those stranded between pro-government and anti-government troops.
Because of oncoming rains, "in a few weeks this area will be totally inaccessible by road, so in order to continue to feed these people we need to already have the food in here and by air is the only means," Cousin said.
More than 25,000 villagers who had fled fighting in the oil-rich Unity state patiently waited at Nyal as the WFP and other organizations like World Vision distributed basic necessities such as cereals, grains and cooking oil.
Nearly 7 million people are at risk of hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. The U.N. reports that in the 100 days since the South Sudan conflict started more than 1 million people have fled their homes and 3.7 million are now at high risk of food insecurity.
The international community has a moral responsibility to help, said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who also travelled with Cousin to Nyal.
"One family told me they were boiling poisonous roots for six or seven days to take out the poison in order to have something to eat," he said. "These people are in risk of starvation."
James Puot, 50, told The Associated Press he walked for 20 days with his wife and 10 children to get to Nyal. He said they were eating water lilies, roots and grass while drinking water from the Nile River.
"We've been waiting a whole day for some food," he said. "We've had no water. We've spent days without water."
The U.N.'s response has been hampered by some missteps. The reported discovery of weapons in a U.N. convoy on March 10 prompted the South Sudan army and government to crackdown on all U.N vehicles carrying aid. The issue further strained already shaky relations between the government and the U.N.
Several U.N agency staff in Juba told AP the cost of road delivery is now 25 percent more expensive as U.N. contractors are refusing to leave the capital with goods bound for neighboring states due to harassment by soldiers and checkpoints that charge up to $10,000 in "inspection fees" for goods to pass.
Cousin acknowledged an "access problem" but said that President Salva Kiir assured the WFP that conditions would improve. "This is one of many complications we are working to resolve," she said.
Jerome Oberreit, the secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, voiced frustration over the U.N's "strikingly slow and inadequate response." The lack of necessary funding and the U.N's "inflexible and quite complex system" has added to delays in food and medical distribution, he said.
"If we don't make use of the pre-rainy season window, we will fail in our response," he said. "People are living in appalling conditions and it's only going to get much worse."
But the WFP has moved away from earlier fears of an impending famine that would cost millions of lives.
"We don't use the word famine," Cousin said. "The consequence of famine is that people are dying. We are not in that situation and we are working to ensure that's not a word that is required to use."