TOfter unprecedented floods last summer, the people of Old Fangak, a small town in northern South Sudan, should be planting now. But the flood water has not receded, the people are still abandoned and now face severe hunger.
Unusually heavy rains began last July, and the White Nile overflowed, destroying all crops and encroaching on farms and villages, affecting Jonglei and other states, leaving people fighting over some swaths of dry land.
Fields are still submerged, mud houses and stiff branches of dead corn are slowly collapsing into the water, entire villages have been abandoned, and large areas have been turned into swamps. Of the 62 villages served by the Old Fangak central market, 45 are devastated by the flooded river.
The July harvest would have fed the local population until this spring, but all harvests were lost. Families sleep in abandoned schools or outdoors on higher ground. It’s not about migrating to dry areas as the flooding stretches for miles and at least Old Fangak is isolated from the constant conflict that plagues much of the rest of the country.
The UN says that around 1.6 million people have been affected by the floods in a country where at least 7.5 million people already need assistance. A recent report from Integrated classification of the food safety phase, (IPC), an initiative of 15 organizations to combat malnutrition, estimates that 6.4 million people, approximately half of the population, will face acute food insecurity in 2021, and for half of them lack of food will be an emergency.
Some people in South Sudan, like those in Old Fangak, are partially or totally isolated from humanitarian aid. Access to the city is difficult in normal times, but debris from the floods has blocked the runway, which was cleared of brush, and boat access from the river.
Data from South Sudan suggest that more erratic and unpredictable weather patterns are now the norm.
The floods were caused by the Indian Ocean dipole (IOD), also known as the “Indian El Niño,” a weather pattern discovered only in 1999. The strongest IOD to hit East Africa in 61 years occurred in 2019. So, When the 2020 rains came in South Sudan, the previous year’s water had not yet receded, leading to more devastating floods. This year’s rains could make the situation even worse, making the resulting famine catastrophic.
“People will starve. Everyone in Old Fangak lacks food and lost what they grew. Hunger is what will kill people, ”says Peter Kak, a fisherman and grandfather of five who lives on an island of grass with his son Samuel. The two men stayed behind after sending the rest of the family to higher ground. Here they fish every day.
“Floods, conflict, Covid-19 and poverty make the situation here dire,” says Sulaiman Sesay of Action Against Hunger, one of the few active aid organizations in this area of South Sudan. “The world needs to know that people are suffering in this way.”
Socio-economic measures taken in response to the pandemic have affected already critical hunger situations in vulnerable places like South Sudan. TO joint report The World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimate that threatening global hunger levels appear to be reaching new highs.
In Old Fangak, people grew sorghum, a cereal that is easy to grow. Now they can only eat water lilies and fish. But not everyone has fishing nets and for those who do the catches they are rarely enough to satisfy their appetite.
“There is not enough sorghum, so we have to resort to the water lily,” explains Samuel Gai. The flowers must be collected in large quantities to grind and make a small amount of cereal.
Despite the severity of the floods, the people of Old Fangak refuse to give up. Faced with rising waters, hunger and isolation from the rest of the country, the community shows an extraordinary capacity for recovery.
“We cooperate,” says Joseph Martin, a villager who helps repair the constantly collapsing runway levee. “The women draw the water with buckets and we put the mud in the dikes to prevent water from entering. They do their part and we do our part.
“When there is work, men and women work together and cooperate. Some people come and work even without us asking them … that’s how we do it, if there is work to save the city, we work together ”.
Moving water in large quantities throughout the day comes at a huge cost to hungry people. “Due to this water, I have lost weight. We do this alone, all day and all night by dumping water over the dam. Nobody comes to help us. We are all exhausted, ”says Nyayen Chuol, who works on the dike with her elderly mother.
Where levees have already broken, many people move to neighbors’ houses and start over, helping to keep other levees strong.
“I am worried all the time. At night I try to stay awake with a fire so I can burn some weed and go check if the dam has a leak or is about to break. Each night. I’m so worried that I can’t even sleep thinking that if I fall asleep the dam could break and I could drown, ”says Nyayang Kich, who had to leave her house flooded by her neighbor’s higher ground.
Stagnant water is also compromising health, leading to an increase in malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
“The climate has changed since I was young because we have never experienced floods like this before. What we are experiencing now is horrible. We are suffering from hunger and before we did not have it. The climate has changed. For older people it is horrible. It is difficult to move in this water; we don’t know where to sleep or what to eat. We are in God’s hands, ”says 83-year-old Mary Nyamat.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism