In Guit in Unity State, men lead their most precious possessions through the flooded fields: cows and an Ak-47 machine gun.
Foto: Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero / DER SPIEGEL
For years, South Sudan has suffered from massive flooding. Now, the water is no longer draining away – and around 8 million people are at risk of starvation. The climate crisis is bringing this already highly vulnerable country ever closer to collapse.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Fritz Schaap
When the water came, the first thing Bol Majok did was bring his children to safety on higher ground. For the moment at least. He left his few belongings behind in his hut. Then he urged the other residents to hurry.
Majok is the chief of Tong village in Unity State, far in the north of South Sudan. He recalls the rain on July 25, 2021, pounding into red earth of his homeland, turning everything into mud. Makeshift dams began failing. The country of his forefathers disappeared in front of Majok’s eyes.
Majok hasn’t returned to his house ever since. The water caused it to collapse, just like most of the huts in the village. “I lost everything,” he says. The floods continued to rise since that July day, sparing only a handful of fields. One by one, Majok’s cows and goats starved to death. The water has never been this high. Many of the residents have already fled.
“At some point,” the scrawny man with the fine tribal scars on his forehead says on his island, “we too will have to flee. And then I’ll no longer be me. Far from the land of my forefathers.”
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has been hit by mass flooding for four straight years. High water levels in the large lakes on the upper reaches of the White Nile River are pushing more and more water into the plains. Since last year, it hasn’t been draining in many places. Nearly all 10 of South Sudan’s states have been affected. With the global community currently gathered in Egypt for the 27th World Climate Conference, they need only look to South Sudan to see the consequences of climate change – and how it has already taken almost everything from a growing group of people.
The light reflects in the endless expanses of water, and in between, there are rotting trees and the pointed thatched roofs of abandoned huts. Farmers are driving their cattle through the shoulder-high water onto higher ground. Behind the high dams lie the refugee camps and the bases of the United Nations and aid organizations, which are often the only ones trying to help people here.
The World Food Program (WFP) recently announced that more than 900,000 people have now been affected by the floods. Almost twice as many as in September. Rains have devastated crops, destroyed homes, washed away roads and bridges, demolished schools and contaminated water sources. The UN is warning of disease outbreaks.
In the oil-rich state of Unity, Majok’s home, the dikes are now threatening to break again. Meanwhile, the refugee camps and the bases of the UN’s UNMISS mission in South Sudan could also be flooded soon. And water isn’t the only problem: War and the failure of the state are further threats to the population. Four out of five South Sudanese already live in abject poverty, and around 8 million of the country’s 11 million inhabitants are food insecure. UNICEF has warned that 1.4 million children could be malnourished as early as next year.
South Sudan has been in a state of crisis since declaring its independence in 2011. Around 400,000 people died during the five-year civil war between the major ethnic groups that broke out only two years after independence. And although President Salva Kiir and his opponent Riek Machar agreed to a cease-fire in 2018, the conflict continues to smolder. “The country is falling apart,” says a staff member of the UN mission. “This place has descended into hell,” another says of Unity State.
Majok doesn’t have much hope either. With his village located around 500 kilometers from the capital, he isn’t expecting help from the state. Indeed, the state hardly has any presence at all out here. Around a hundred villagers have gathered behind him on this particular Friday trying to scoop up water in pots and canisters from a field whose dam just failed. But their efforts are useless. A woman faints behind Majok. The others chant: “Water lilies are what we eat! We don’t have anything else!”
A group of women carries the unconscious woman past Majok. Like everyone here, he eats a laboriously extracted paste from the seeds of water lilies, no more than one meal a day, usually at noon. Tired, Majok looks at his flooded millet field. “We were close to harvest,” he says.
Majok walks through his village on the way to his new hut, past other temporary dwellings. Mud pulls at his bare feet. He explains that his community now includes 12 islands, with the largest measuring 1,000 meters long and up to 300 meters wide. Far out in the water, you can see the remains of the former village school. A few goats are running around. The smell of wet wood refusing to burn lingers in the air.
“Food deliveries from aid organizations haven’t been sufficient for a long time,” Majok says. The last shipment of aid arrived two months ago on canoes, and it had already been used up two weeks later. And Tong is just one of many villages in such dire straits.
The World Food Program had to cut rations for 1.7 million people in South Sudan this year. Because of the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and inflation, wealthier countries are donating less than usual. The WFP alone is facing a shortfall of $585 million in funding for the next six months. Rations had to be cut as a result. “We have to take from the hungry to give to the starving,” says Gemma Snowdon of WFP. She says there has never been hunger of this magnitude.
Bol Majok is calling on his community to plant crops. But the water usually destroys the new fields immediately. He says quietly that it was only last June that he tried growing okra, millet and cabbage here, behind his shack. They are also lacking the nets and hooks needed to fish. “All that’s left are the water lilies.” And even those are growing sparser. A 50-kilogram harvest yields 3.5 kilograms of nutrient-poor porridge. “We would starve without the water lilies,” he says.
Monica Nyadak is waiting in white robes and with a colorful headscarf over her forehead on another island surrounded by foul-smelling water. The 50-year-old is the chair of the local women’s association and talks about the problems that come with the new staple food. Because harvesting water lilies, she says, is a woman’s job.
“We are suffering the most from the flooding,” she says, adding that the women are exposed to snakes and crocodiles in the water. It also isn’t uncommon for men living in the floodplains to rape women during the harvest. “That has happened four times recently in our village alone,” she says.
The work makes many women sick, says Nyadak. They suffer from diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria. There aren’t any toilets, and people also drink the flood water. “Most often, we get skin rashes,” she says. A pipeline runs just a few kilometers from the village carrying oil pumped from some nearby rigs. She says the pipe has leaks.
So the people are fleeing: From the poisoned water – and the conflicts. Around 150,000 refugees live in camps in the area surrounding the regional capital Bentiu. Government troops and militias are still fighting each other in Unity State, with both sides raiding villages, slaughtering residents and burning down the remaining huts in the middle of the apocalyptic landscapes. Cattle thefts are common.
It is a tradition here, one local government official says, for the victim side to go out and kill someone else in revenge. And no one is held accountable.
Nyapilieng Matiek squats in front of a row of stinking latrines. She traveled for six days with her husband and seven children from their hometown of Adok Port to reach the camp in Bentiu. She says they had to flee when pro-government militias attacked her village on April 3. “They had come to steal cows. Then they started shooting and killing.” They gunned down her firstborn son with their assault rifles.
Matiek’s father-in-law and her brother died in the burning huts. The massacre lasted a day and 40 people died. Those who could fled into the tall grasses on the riverbank while the attackers raped the women of the village. When it was all over, she says, the survivors tried to match severed heads to the bodies scattered around.
They had nothing to eat during the three days it took them to get to the camp afterwards. They drank the water they waded through. More than a hundred people ultimately completed the trek to Bentiu. Young and old alike died during the journey.
“But we had to keep moving because the floods and the attack had taken all we had,” Matiek says. Here in the camp, they now live off the alms of other starving people. And not far away, where the shiny corrugated iron roofs end, behind the dike, the water continues to rise.