YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – In a desperate plea for assistance, the bishops of South Sudan are highlighting the dire conditions faced by the nation’s population.

The religious leaders say the survival of families, children, and the future hangs in the balance.

In a March 8 letter, Bishop Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala – the president of the Integral Human Development Commission of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SCBC) – said the country was “on the brink of destitution” and that the people of Africa’s youngest country are “slowly perishing.”

“Our people continue to suffer the effects of complex emergencies, which are still being experienced in many parts of the country, including those parts that had previously been peaceful,” Hiiboro Kussala said.

The Secretary General of Caritas, Alistair Dutton, visited the region two weeks ago. Speaking to Crux, Dutton explained the complexities of the crisis, and noted that the response needs to be holistic.

“Investing in meaningful assistance calls for responding to the whole of the crisis–not only to provide urgent aid to save lives now, but support that addresses the root causes, so as to break the cycle,” he told Crux.

Following are excerpts of that interview…

Crux: The Bishops of South Sudan are appealing for assistance from Caritas and the international community to help rescue a country “on brink of destitution, slowly perishing.” What is your immediate reaction to this appeal?

Dutton: The recent humanitarian appeal by the bishops of South Sudan is urgent and necessary. The people of South Sudan are facing dire, dangerous conditions in which their survival — the future of their children and their families — is at stake.

Malnutrition in South Sudan has become a public health emergency. A staggering 75 percent of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. Additionally, some parts of the country are experiencing their third or fourth consecutive year of flooding, which has not only devastated crops as food and income sources but has led to spiked cases of malaria and waterborne diseases.

Escalating insecurity has exacerbated these conditions, threatening people’s lives and livelihoods—their ability to grow, access and pay for food. In the most dire circumstances, especially among children, levels of malnutrition have led to the need for nutritional supplements to survive. I’m heartbroken that more than 2 million South Sudanese have had to flee their homes and country for help and refuge.

And it seems the Church has been quite active in bringing respite to people in these dire circumstances?

I’m grateful for the life-saving work and commitment of the Church across South Sudan. It is our collective responsibility to sound this alarm on behalf of South Sudanese families and communities—and to respond as a global Church to ensure their care, nourishment and ability to survive and recover.

 How does it strike you that people could actually be dying from starvation while food is being wasted in several parts of the world? Is this a lack of compassion?

What is happening in South Sudan is illustrative of this pressing moment in time. Millions of people around the world are experiencing life-threatening levels of hunger. A number of converging factors — including poverty, climate change, conflict and economic shocks —have created a global food crisis that is among most complex we have seen.

As we are witnessing in South Sudan, the impact of this crisis can change the trajectory of people’s lives — with displacement and disease — and have ripple effects that last months or even years.

The food crisis brings to light the tight-knit ecosystem within which we all function — when one part of the system breaks down, the whole is impacted. A war in one part of the world can lead to starvation in another, which the Ukraine war has shown. Similarly, the food system has been impacted by the effects of climate change in terms of production. Food inflation has put people under tremendous strain, and supply chain interruptions and high costs continue to slow humanitarian operations and disrupt local and regional markets.

How do you address the emergency needs while at the same time providing solutions that are more sustainable?

Investing in meaningful assistance calls for responding to the whole of the crisis–not only to provide urgent aid to save lives now, but support that addresses the root causes, so as to break the cycle. As part of our humanitarian response as a Church, we promote a holistic approach to meet needs today while improving food security for the future.

We can reverse the trend of hunger in South Sudan and globally by investing in local solutions that create resilience and are sustainable. With comprehensive support that invests in communities and local systems, families can grow healthy and strong on land that is doing the same.

 I know Caritas has been doing a lot to help desperate people, but how ready are you to heed this very urgent call from the bishops?

We are committed to doing all that we can to mobilize support for our partners in South Sudan. Our Caritas members and Church partners are at the frontlines of this crisis — in fact, many are directly affected.

The role of the Church and Caritas is vital in contexts and crises like these: local organizations are often the first to respond — if not the only organizations with access to communities affected by conflict or insecurity. We are of these communities, with the relationships, understanding, trust and perspective to be agile to changing contexts.

 While we must respond urgently to save lives and prevent famine, we must invest in sustainable solutions to achieve food security and lasting stability. People must see a future for themselves beyond aid. Communities are dynamic and everchanging — as are the challenges they face. It’s not enough just to have a meal when you’re hungry; you need to have options and security to plan for the future.

This is defining our collective response as a Church, as Caritas, where needs are greatest. We continue to be there for the people of South Sudan. As a Caritas family, our hearts and prayers are with them for their health, healing and recovery.