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It's been only a year since South Sudan became an independent nation. But as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported last month, the young county is already facing major challenges.

One of these is a growing population of refugees at the northern border, where conditions have become so dire in the past few weeks that aid workers are now calling it a "health catastrophe."

A third of children at the camps are severely malnourished, the aid group Doctors Without Borders estimates. And about two to five children are dying each day of dehydration and diarrhea, a rate that is more than double the emergency level.

Now the United Nations World Food Programme is pulling out all stops, including emergency air drops of grain, to help these families.

"We use airdrops when there isn't another choice," Challiss McDonough, a spokesman for the World Food Programme, tells Shots. "We haven't done them anywhere in the world since 2009. But there is an urgent need to get food to these people."

Since last November, more than 100,000 people have crossed the Sudan border to escape fighting and find food. The camps depend entirely on humanitarian aid from the outside, and their resources were stretched beyond capacity recently when the population of some camps doubled within a two week period.

At the same time, heavy rains blocked roads to the camps. The wet conditions exacerbated health problems and nearly shut down the delivery of supplies.

The World Food Programme started emergency airdrops into one camp last Wednesday, and McDonough says planes are dropping about 100 metric tons of cereal grains each day. They hope to deliver 5,000 metric tons over the next few months to two camps.

By comparison, McDonough says, "we were dropping 140,000 metric tons each year to Sudan before the peace treaty in 2005." For more than two decades, WFP operated an airbase in Kenya for airdrops in southern Sudan. WFP closed its office there last year.

The latest airdrops originate in Ethiopia. They are expensive and logistically complicated, but "the reason we do this is for the urgency of the situation," McDonough says. "People really need nutritional support."

The health conditions in the camp are "catastrophically bad," Helen Ottens-Patterson, a medical coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, wrote in an email to Shots.

Doctors Without Borders is the main provider of medical services for the region, and it has set aside more than 20 million euros to pay for care in the five refugee camps in South Sudan this year. The group has also been flying in medical supplies.

"Malnourished children cannot wait a few weeks for us to supply medicines via slower and cheaper methods. We are saving lives on a daily basis and so have to keep moving fast," Patterson wrote.

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