Living with the floods

Banks of the River Nile are changing with the climate

Lisa Lynn Hill
Children playing
UNICEFSouthSudan/Hill
07 November 2020

Have global activities of humans destroyed the earth’s climate so much that the River Nile’s eco-system of seasonal floods have grown from predictable to catastrophic?

“This year the rain waters started in March, busting the riverbanks by 1 May, and it’s still growing worse every day. Normally the rainy season is April to October.”

– Dr. Wuoi

Dr. John Wuoi heads the Malou Primary Health Care Unit (PHCU) in Malou village of Bor county. The PHCU is normally a 20-minute walk from Bor town but took one hour each way, waddling through floods a meter and a half deep. The next day, the village was only reachable by canoe as the waters creep higher by the hour. Jonglei state is now 80 per cent under water with around 350,000 people displaced.

people wading through water
UNICEFSouthSudan/Hill
Most people seeking shelter in this half-built church had to move on because the water was raising quickly. Some remain inside with their furniture and belongings with no capacity to move.

It’s possible that the warming climate has increased the rainfall, causing the Nile to burst out of its banks and swallow-up homes, pushing people out with little or no belongings in hand. In the past six months, thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) have crowded into the grounds of the Malou Mix Primary School, a UNICEF supported school, beside the Malou PHCU.

The health unit served a population of 15,880 before the floods but now there are six villages crowded into one. “Supplies that used to last three months now last us only one month,” Dr. Wuoi reports.

Despite the hardship, the clinic is still saving lives. Awel’s sister was treated for acute malnutrition.

“Since the flood, there is a lot of hunger. Before, people were farmers. Now we are confined here [in the IDP camp].”

– Awel

She says that she now spends all her time searching for firewood and clean water. There’s no time for studying any school lessons.  

Bor’s people are pastoralists and fishermen whose sole livelihood is based on the land. Today, all crops are underwater, livestock herded far away, and almost all informal jobs cease to exist as everyone is building/repairing dykes, displaced, or stranded. The Nile spread its banks overnight, the water lilies flowing in with the river, surrounding tukul tops, creating a surreal beauty that hides snakes and crocodiles. The quickly changed environment has created a food vacuum and increased medical needs. 

A girl sitting on a church bench in a flooded church
UNICEFSouthSudan/Hill
A girl seated on a bench in a flooded church.

Thanks to the 16 UNICEF supported health and nutrition units in Jonglei, over 95,000 severe and moderate malnourished children have been treated so far this year. Four health units have been flooded out and set-up in temporary tents to keep serving those in need. Dr. Wuoi says the floods have resulted in a spike in malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and animal bites. UNICEF supplies are carried in by hand, through the floods, to reach Malou PHCU and kept cold by use of solar power.

People are constantly in search of clean water as bore holes have been contaminated by the floods. In chest-high waters there is a half-built church where some IDP’s have found temporary shelter. Inside, there are three huge water filter containers that supply drinking water. The water filters were provided by UNICEF who also supplied 69 households with a filter.

People standing next to water filters
UNICEFSouthSudan/Hill
Water filters used to produce clean drinking water as the closest boreholes are contaminated from the floods.

This brings to mind an image of what the future of clean water will be like and who will have access to it. The floods bring with it a plethora of sicknesses such as malaria, yellow fever, and Guinea worm. Not to mention waterborne diseases from sewage being mixed in the water like typhoid, hepatitis and cholera. If people aren’t taught to care for the environment now, clean water will be scarce in near generations to come.

A group of kids were asked if they know what climate change is. As their heads were shaking no, the questions changed to see if they know how to care for the environment. “Collect trash and burn it in one place,” shouts a boy. “If you keep dirty you will get lice, so you must wash,” says another kid.

It seems that lessons on how to protect the earth from climate change would be a good addition to the school curriculum.

A woman emptying a buckets of flood water
UNICEFSouthSudan/Hill
A woman trying to keep the flood water outside the dykes in Bor

The disaster in Bor can be used as a template to think of how we need to plan for future generations of children and the impacts of climate change. Millions of people live along the north-flowing River Nile, the longest river in the world, snaking 6,695 km through 11 countries. Changing weather patterns is also changing where people can live, where food can grow and further, where societies can exist.