Desperate families in flood-ravaged villages in South Sudan spend hours searching for water lilies to eat after another summer of heavy rains made an already dire situation worse.
People have no food or land to farm after three years of flooding. The fields are submerged in water from last year’s flood and the higher ground is crammed with starving people, in what is fast becoming a humanitarian crisis.
Fangak, one of the most affected in the 31 counties devastated by floods, continues to lose ground to rising water. But displaced communities along the banks of the White Nile River have nowhere to go to escape the high tide.
“The flood water drove us out of our house and now we are heading to Old Fangak to find a place to sleep tonight … [but] I don’t know of any other place we can go after tonight. If so, we will make a small island of grass and sleep on the water, ”says Nyadut Gatkuoth, a woman who migrates with her relatives to the central market area in Old Fangak, one of the few areas on higher ground.
Last year, people left their collapsed mud houses behind and slept outdoors under trees and in abandoned school buildings, but this year many of these areas have also flooded. An estimate 1.7 million people are displaced in South Sudan, and migration has increased this year, with people reporting that they have been forced to seek higher ground at least twice in recent months. Others have surrendered and crossed the border into Sudan.
The UN says that more than 780,000 people have been affected due to flooding so far, and this number is expected to increase in the coming months. In counties like Fangak, the number of people affected by the floods was expected to increase from 75% to almost 100% by the end of October, according to Action Against Hunger. Meanwhile, the country as a whole has 8 million people in needsays the UN.
People have not been able to farm the land in many areas since 2020. Many of those who lost this year’s harvest also lost their livestock to diseases caused by animals grazing in the flooded fields. Without the milk and meat traditionally provided by cattle to fill the gaps in times of need, people are struggling to find wild foods. In the absence of fishing nets or canoes, entire families depend on collecting water lilies by the dozen to grind them into a small meal of the day.
“We are not used to collecting water lilies but the flood water forces us to do so. We can spend about five hours looking for them in the water, “says Bol Kek, a mother of seven who lives in the higher lands of Paguir,”[but] When you eat water lilies it feels like you haven’t eaten anything. “
The cumulative impact of crop failure, livestock deaths and flooding has led to the collapse of traditional livelihoods, according to scientists in the region. Water lilies and fish are not sustainable long-term sources of food because access to wild food will decline in the rainy season, especially for poor households without canoes, triggering acute food insecurity once again.
Although efforts have been made to prepare for this year’s floods, humanitarian food distribution has been hampered by insufficient funds. Distributions have been delayed and food rations cut to prioritize those who need it most, at the expense of other communities. An estimated 2.5 million people facing severe food insecurity and more than 100,000 are considered close to famine.
Nyadiang Gak, a mother who migrated to higher ground hoping to farm this year, says: “We used to plant corn and sorghum at the same time, so when the corn was finished we could harvest the sorghum. Now is the time to harvest sorghum, but we couldn’t even plant it … I planted corn next to my house, but when the second flood came it destroyed it and I couldn’t even harvest it … Now we are hungry ”.
More communities are now cut off by the floods, while traveling to other areas carries the risk of attacks or the looting of food supplies. The increase in violence against humanitarian workers that caused four deaths this year coincides with the rise in food prices. In September 2020, the price of 3.5 kg of sorghum powder, a staple of the country, was about 800 South Sudanese pounds (about 4.50 British pounds), but this year it has risen 60% to 1,300 SSP . The trend is likely to continue, with South Sudan’s economy is expected to contract 4% in 2021, according to the World Bank.
South Sudan is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate collapse, according to the Global climate index. Food insecurity, conflict, declining human rights, and financial problems exacerbated by Covid-19 have eroded its ability to cope with recurring extreme weather events such as floods. Heavy rains that caused three consecutive floods alone worsens in South Sudan and the region in general if global temperatures continue to rise, predicted a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Although floods occur every year during the rainy season from May to October, scientists say that recent flooding in Fangak County Has Been Exceptional in terms of intensity, geographic extent, and duration. The leading theory about the cause of the floods, with the exception of the absence of data before 1980 and the lack of a larger-scale assessment involving neighboring countries, is that upstream water saturated local swamps, which probably they have absorbed water in previous years.
In the remote towns and villages of the worst affected states, life is dire. Old Fangak has no electricity or drinking water. Dirty water has polluted wells and accumulates sewage on roads. People cook with the same floodwater in which children play and animals graze.
“It is a real struggle to be here with this water. There are many diseases around. This boy and I have a cough, and all this because of the water, ”says David Deng, who is blind and his granddaughter, Angelina, carries him through the floodwaters in Old Fangak.
Since last year, entire villages have disappeared under the water. In their place float small islands made of dry grass, where dozens of people sleep in the open air. Snakebite cases have increased dramatically.
Children are constantly being pushed further away from schools due to the encroachment of the water. In many remote areas of the country, children have been without an education for two years due to the pandemic and flooding. Where there are still houses, communities dump water every hour and repair mud dams that break almost daily.
Nyapini Yiel, a mother of two who lost her home two weeks ago, expresses the plight of the communities living on the front lines of the climate crisis. “I’m tired of building dams all the time and drawing water all the time… so when it broke that night I couldn’t do anything because it was dark and my children and I were home alone, so we went back to sleep. We slept on the bed even when the water came into the house. “
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism