UNHCR – Record floods in South Sudan amid rapid climate change Donate

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At first light, 70-year-old Cholul Jock slips through chest-deep murky water and visits the fragile earthen dyke that surrounds the two huts that house his family of seven.


She slips plastic sheets into holes and packs mud into the gaps in a daily struggle to keep floodwaters at bay.

“It’s the only way for me to prevent this water from entering my property,” she explains. “And if the dyke bursts, the water could wash us all away – that’s my fear.”

The mother of 18 – including three survivors – is among thousands of residents of Fangak County, Jonglei State in eastern South Sudan battling the worst flooding in living memory.

Record rainfall over the past three years in the Upper Nile region and flooding upstream in other countries have drowned land where they once raised goats and grew sorghum and groundnuts, with little chance that the flood waters recede between rainy seasons.

Flooded twice, Jock has not farmed for the past two years. Forced to move, her family retreated behind an 80 meter flood barrier with their few goats.

“We have been fighting on two fronts for two years: hunger and [keeping the] the water on the other side. We go to bed hungry every day because we have nothing to eat,” she says.

More than 835,000 people like Jock have been affected by floods in South Sudan, an already fragile country plagued by conflict since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, according to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). .

The floods have severely affected 33 of the landlocked country’s 79 counties, making life even more precarious for those affected.

“Sometimes I go fishing, but on a busy day like today, I just focus on repairing the dike,” says Jock, overcome with fatigue. “The only challenge here is that this work needs energy: when people don’t eat well, they can’t work either.”

Climate change leads to more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate events such as cyclones, floods and droughts, which negatively impact agricultural production, food and water resources and people’s livelihoods . These effects can lead to conflict and humanitarian disasters, and increasingly contribute to displacement in different parts of the world.

Its impacts are felt disproportionately in poorer countries like South Sudan that contribute the least to carbon emissions. While the Jonglei wetland region has always been prone to heavy rains and flooding, locals say patterns changed dramatically four years ago.

“This kind of flood is different.”

“At that time, even during heavy rains, people could still cultivate their farms and grow food. But this kind of flooding is different,” said James Kai, a local resident who has farmed the land for most of his 80s.

Kai has been uprooted four times in the past two years. He now shelters in his brother’s dyke-surrounded compound at Old Fangak with his four wives and some of their 17 children, struggling every day to keep the waters from overwhelming the earthen berm.

His family receives rations from the World Food Program which do not cover their needs. To supplement their diet, he weaves fishing nets to trap mudfish and tilapia, while his wives search from a canoe for water lilies and wild fruits.

Where they once took their crops to market via dirt roads, these are now flooded. Boat trips to and from the nearest market cost between 200 and 400 South Sudanese Pounds (0.45 to 0.90 USD) – a sum few people can afford.

Even a small airstrip nearby is underwater, leaving the community largely cut off from the rest of the country, with transport limited to canoes and motorboats. Primary health care services are non-existent, except in Old Fangak, which has the only functioning health facility in the county, run by Doctors Without Borders.

There is currently no food aid for schoolchildren and families have to pay for local canoes to ferry their children to class, where they once walked – a trip at no cost.

  • James Kai, a former farmer displaced by the floods, paddles his canoe from his home in Old Fangak towards the market. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

  • Kai, 80, now feeds his family and earns his living by catching fish, which he preserves by hanging them in the sun outside his home.

    Kai, 80, now feeds his family and earns his living by catching fish, which he preserves by hanging them in the sun outside his home. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

  • A boy brings his canoe home from school.

    A boy brings his canoe home from school. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

  • Houses partially submerged by floodwaters lie abandoned in Old Fangak.

    Houses partially submerged by floodwaters lie abandoned in Old Fangak. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

  • Children pump drinking water from a partially submerged borehole in Old Fangak.

    Children pump drinking water from a partially submerged borehole in Old Fangak. © UNHCR/Samuel Otieno

“We have to pay for the canoes and we don’t have enough money to send, for example, 10 children to school,” Kai explains. “When there is no money, it means the children will have to stay home for that day or that week,” he adds.

Hunger and flooding caused many families to abandon Old Fangak and head for Malakal and other towns in the region.

Those who remain have banded together to build and repair the dikes that surround their homes. But with no return to normal between rainy seasons – and another looming in May – their former resilience has gradually eroded to the point where they now face an imminent threat to their survival.

Kai says communities need water pumps to replenish their abandoned compounds before the rains. Heavy machinery is also needed to help fabricate strong flood barriers and build mounds to keep their livestock out of the water.

“We have not been defeated by any insurrection, so this flood should not make us give up,” he asserts. “We have to fight to the end and stay strong.”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has provided plastic sheeting, hoes, shovels and sandbags to help strengthen their flood defences, and is supporting displaced families in Malakal and other ‘other towns by the floods. However, humanitarian access is limited with flooded or washed out roads and underwater airfields.

In line with its push for more forward-looking investment and operational readiness in climate-prone regions, the agency also calls on the government and the international and humanitarian communities to step up assistance to those affected. by the climate emergency before the next rains.

“We did our best, but the water keeps coming.”

“South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, affected not only by conflict, but also by the challenges of climate change,” Andrew Harper, UNHCR’s special adviser on climate change, told a conference in press in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, after a tour. flooded areas in March.

“There is a very strong community spirit adapting to these changes, they are doing everything they can to protect these communities, their farms and their livestock, but they need support,” he said. declared.

“I don’t think it’s fair that you have elderly women forced to build the defenses of their villages with their bare hands, not when there are so many resources there,” he added.

Harper said the aid should support communities’ own efforts to prepare for the next rainy season and develop responses to mitigate and adapt to medium- and long-term climate change.

For Jock, crushed by the uneven fight against water, that help can’t come soon enough.

“We are tired and in pain. This water is too much,” she pleads. “We did our best, but the water keeps coming.”

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Juba, South Sudan

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