The IPC, whose members include the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), said famine had not been officially declared because it was hard to get data from conflict zones.
Hunger in the world’s newest state has grown steadily worse in the nearly two years since a political crisis led to fighting that reopened ethnic fault lines between president Salva Kiir’s Dinka people and ethnic Nuer forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar.
“At least 30,000 people are living in extreme conditions and are facing starvation and death,” FAO, the UN children’s agency Unicef, and WFP said in a statement.
“There is a great concern that famine may exist in the coming months but it may not be possible to validate it at that time due to lack of evidence as the result of limited access to the affected areas and populations.”
Humanitarian groups have been forced to pull out of parts of oil-rich Unity State, one of the worst-hit areas, and they say displaced families are surviving on just one meal a day. In extreme cases, people fleeing violence survive by eating water lilies.
This marks the first time since the conflict erupted that the ICP has identified that some people in South Sudan have reached the fifth phase, catastrophic food insecurity, on its five-point scale.
“This is the start of the harvest and we should be seeing a significant improvement in the food security situation across the country,” said WFP country director Joyce Luma.
“Unfortunately this is not the case in places like southern Unity State, where people are on the edge of a catastrophe that can be prevented,” Luma said.
“Since fighting broke out nearly two years ago, children have been plagued by conflict, disease, fear and hunger,” Unicef chief in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch said.
“Their families have been extraordinary in trying to sustain them, but have now exhausted all coping mechanisms. Agencies can support, but only if we have unrestricted access. If we do not, many children may die.”
Civil war began in December 2013 when president Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.
The army and rebels have repeatedly traded blame, accusing each other of breaking an internationally-brokered August 26 ceasefire, the eighth such arrangement