South Sudan, 1 August 2014: Response to looming threats of disease and malnutrition is a race against time and the elements
By Suzanne Beukes
Now, she dismantles these walls. Today, the family will seek higher ground. Rainy season is in full swing. Many of the houses here, in this camp in Bentiu, in Unity State, have been submerged by floods.
The rain starts to fall. Ms. Kai and her husband cover the few personal belongings they were able to carry when they fled their home in late March, when fighting broke out in their village.
The Kais are among thousands of people who have sought refuge on this muddy, swampy United Nations base that serves as a Protection of Civilians camp.
In April, fighting intensified in the town of Bentiu. More than 38,000 people streamed into the camp, where they joined around 7,000 people who had been there since December.
Aid agencies were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people and were able to provide only about two litres of safe water for each person, per day.
Many of the new arrivals had already spent days in the bush with little or no food. As the families arrived en masse, the children, in particular, were weak and malnourished.
Without enough clean water and sanitation facilities, with limited healthcare facilities, with too few staff to accommodate the massive, rapid population increase – and given the illness, malnutrition and sheer exhaustion the new arrivals were suffering from living in the bush – an estimated more than 20 children under 5 years old died every week.
Seasoned aid workers reported never having seen a situation so dire.
A mere few months later, aid agencies are scaling up their response, and there has been much improvement for families sheltering in the camp. Now, each person receives around 10 litres of safe drinking water every day. More clinics have been set up, and boreholes have been dug and latrines built. The mortality rate has decreased significantly – but children continue to die from preventable diseases.
And now, the rains have come. “One of the challenges we are expecting is that we are in the middle of the rainy season,” says UNICEF Health and Nutrition Specialist Dr. Monday Kato. “[T]his is when we see an increment in diseases – especially diarrhoeal diseases…and the malnutrition situation is worsening.”
Last week, UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that South Sudan is falling rapidly into a nutrition crisis that could see more than 50,000 children die from malnutrition over the course of this year.
Today, a team of community volunteers pass by the Kais’ dismantled house as the family prepare to move. This cadre of volunteers perform check-ups three times each week to help improve the general nutrition of children in the camp.
The team screen Ms. Kai’s daughter Nyagoanar for malnutrition. They note that the little girl has diarrhoea. They give Ms. Kai two sachets of oral rehydration salts and explain how to administer the treatment. They advise her to go to the clinic immediately if the situation does not improve. They also talk about keeping rubbish away from the house and making sure the family wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet.
As more rain falls, teams like this one and families like the Kais are in a race against time and the elements to make sure that the spread of diseases like diarrhoea be averted.
And as South Sudan struggles with what UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake has described as “looming famine”, UNICEF and partners are boring into the remotest parts of conflict zones on rapid response air missions to reach families at greatest risk.
More on the crisis in South Sudan