Rain, roads and checkpoints

The challenges of supplying South Sudan

UNICEF South Sudan
A UN truck stuck on a flooded road
UNICEF South Sudan
23 January 2018

Truck driver Rogers Kenei knows just how dangerous and difficult it can be to deliver aid for UNICEF around civil war-torn South Sudan. Four drivers and one driver assistant have lost their lives since 2013.

During his travels through the country, the Kenyan father of three has been robbed several times and been forced to pay his way through as many as 20 checkpoints on a single 100-kilometre trip.

“You never get a receipt,” he says.

But he says the financial rewards outweigh the risks and he’s philosophical about what might happen on the road.

“As human beings, wherever you stay in a good place or a bad place, you have limited time.”

Dangerous road travel is just one of the challenges UNICEF faces in delivering life-saving aid, including vaccines, oral rehydration kits and ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), to some 4.8 million people in need around South Sudan, a nation the size of France. The provision of RUTF, commonly known as ‘plumpy’nut’, has saved the lives of countless children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. 

UN vehicles on a flooded road
UNICEF South Sudan

The lack of paved roads is a real issue in a country where road transport is crucial. France has over a million kilometres of paved roads, South Sudan has just 280. During the dry season, a journey from Juba to Wau can take less than a week, but in the rainy season it can take over two weeks, if the driver makes it at all. The same distance in Europe, between Budapest and Munich, takes just seven hours.

To make matters worse, after an outbreak of fighting in 2016 all non-essential international staff were evacuated and the skeleton workforce which remained quickly became fatigued.

But Diana Chikuwa, a UNICEF supply officer, says the supplies still need to reach their destinations, come rain, shine or wartime.

“Supplies and logistics is like oxygen. When it is there and working, no one talks about it, but when there are issues people suddenly realize its importance.”

With a Master’s degree in logistics and supply chain management, Chikuwa is well versed in the workings of a supply operation and understands the impact on programmes when things go wrong.

UN vehicle on the edge of a flooded road
UNICEF South Sudan

Chikuwa says when roads are impassable air transport often becomes the only option.

However, this multiplies the cost. By road, the cost of transporting 7,000 kilogrammes from Juba, the capital, to the distant township of Wau is US$1,583. By air it is US$13,590, almost ten times as much.

Before the haulage companies set off with their precious cargo a detailed procurement and sorting process has taken place in one of UNICEF’s main warehouses in either Juba or Rumbek.

UNICEF truck stuck on a muddy road
UNICEF South Sudan

It can take several weeks to get goods and supplies into South Sudan in the first place and this is further complicated if the supplies have come from far afield.

Procuring regionally from an East African neighbour makes the process a little easier. Paperwork must be correct and checked, with the tax exemptions in place. Any slip-ups and authorities are quick to impose taxes.

But the wheels do keep turning and as the roads dry out and some are repaired, convoys move faster and more efficiently through the countryside.

There is a race now to procure supplies ahead of the lean season so food is in place when it is needed. The poor harvest in 2017 makes this task ever more important.