From one crisis to another
More than 900,000 people in eastern South Sudan have been displaced by massive flooding. UNICEF is on the ground bringing relief.
PIBOR, South Sudan – The deafening sound of whirring helicopter blades cuts through the stillness of this part of South Sudan’s Boma State. Below, thatched roofs protrude from the floodwaters that have swept across the region. Mile after mile, the scene is the same – no signs of life, in any direction.
Eventually, a small patch of dirt comes into view – what remains of an airstrip. Spinning blades whip up waves of brown water as the helicopter descends towards a spot where hundreds of displaced families have gathered, hoping for assistance.
Around 70,000 families across South Sudan have been displaced by a band of flooding affecting mostly the eastern part of South Sudan, including Boma State. While heavy rain and flooding is normal this time of year, exceptionally heavy rain since July has dramatically increased the scope and scale of the flooding – and the devastation. Homes, possessions, food, schools, health and nutrition centres, and lives have been lost in what was already an extremely difficult environment for many families.
A dangerous place to grow up
“It’s not only about the flooding,” notes UNICEF Education Specialist Steward Francis Kutiyote. Here, drought, cattle raiding, child abduction and food scarcity are no strangers to those who call Boma State home.
But even as the nation grapples with the effects of the civil war that wracked South Sudan for five years the country has moved to address this humanitarian crisis. More than 900,000 South Sudanese have been affected by the flooding so far, 490,000 of them children. On 29 October 2019, the Government declared an emergency in impacted counties.
“South Sudan was already one of the most dangerous countries to be a child, and now it has gotten worse,” says Mohamed Ag Ayoya, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan. “The actions we are taking today will determine how long children will feel [the impact of] these floods after the water subsides.”
Villages across the area have been left empty as their inhabitants fled, forced to trek to higher ground. In some cases, communities have created their own little islands with small mud walls, but these still leave families dangerously exposed to rising waters.
UNICEF began distributing supplies in October to affected areas. But while the most pressing needs are easy to identify – shelter, nutrition, medical supplies – mobility poses the biggest challenge.
Flooded roads have forced Mr. Kutiyote’s team and other responders to rely on boats to reach the most isolated communities. “But we have only two,” he says.
Even where the water is shallow enough to wade through, the terrain can be treacherous for the team, most of whom have been walking several kilometres a day, carrying heavy loads of essential supplies through muddy waters that make even short distances feel like a lengthy workout. They wear waterproof boots to protect against sharp objects drifting in the floodwaters, but injuries are still common.
The risk of immediate physical injury isn’t the only danger lurking in the floodwaters. In the town of Pibor, the floating corpses of a dozen or so bloated dogs are collected each morning and disposed of as far away as possible from where people are sheltered.
These waters, which have displaced tens of thousands of South Sudanese, are the same that villagers are now forced to use for washing, cooking, drinking and cleaning. This in turn has increased the risk of chest infections and pneumonia, as well as water-borne illnesses like acute diarrhoea and cholera.
Children are always particularly vulnerable during natural disasters like flooding not only from the immediate danger of drowning but also from the threat of longer-term diseases and protection risks.
UNICEF has been disseminating safety messages to increase awareness of how flooding impacts children. It has also been assisting reunification efforts for dozens of children in Pibor who have become separated from their parents.
Children who have been separated from their parents are at even greater risk of exploitation. For Mr. Kutiyote, helping children who have been separated from their parents is deeply personal.
“I trekked for days and days to Congo and kept going to reach Uganda [after being separated from my parents],” he says. “I lived in a refugee camp in the same situation as these people. I was an unaccompanied child. I know what that means. I had no one. I chose to come to Pibor as I understand [what they are going through], but I am also still learning from these children, about what they are going through.”
UNICEF is on the ground working with partners to deliver essential supplies and assistance to communities impacted by the devastating flooding. UNICEF South Sudan is asking for US$10 million to respond to the most immediate needs of children, including providing screenings and treatment for acute malnutrition, temporary learning centres and water purification tablets.