South Sudan bears the brunt of climate change

By Okech Francis

As the world readies to converge at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 at Glasgow, Scotland, the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan is reeling from devastating effects of climate change.

The pivotal meeting scheduled for 31st October-12 November is expected to set the tone and mood of climate action for the next decade.

We must urgently secure a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience, so that vulnerable communities can manage these growing (climate) risks…I expect all these issues to be addressed and resolved at COP26. Our future is at stake”, Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General says.

As the clock ticks towards the all-important global conference, South Sudanese remain a worried lot. Over the past six years, the country’s population has cursed the unending and unforgiving effects of climate change.

To sum it up, the glaring and ravaging aftermaths of global warming seem to secretly conspire with socio-economic dynamics to deny South Sudanese an opportunity to settle and rebuild their once fledging economy.

Though the guns went silent, a sign of a lull in fighting, the oil-rich region of Unity State experiences tough times as natural calamities, drought and floods interchangeably haunt and stalk it. The common denominator in all these is the threats of climate change.

Overwhelming disaster

Today, more than 800,000 residents of six out of seven counties in Unity State have either fled their homes to Bentiu the capital, neighbouring states or are live on isolated high grounds for their safety.

They have been cut off from basic amenities, their homes have been submerged in the unforgiving torrential flood waters.

“The magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming,” Unity State Governor Joseph Manytuil told reporters on a recent visit to the affected area.

“In all the villages, we lost all what is there, schools, health facilities and everything and we are only trying to maintain Bentiu and the facilities there.”

Such facilities are just remnants of what escaped plunder and destruction during the six years conflict in South Sudan.

The level of devastation as Unity State was hit left, right and centre, with hate and anger by both government and rebel forces, could only be described by international observers as “scorched-earth.”

The war which began in late 2013 left 400,000 people dead, displaced four million others and slashed crude production leading to economic chaos in South Sudan.

In 2017, famine was declared in two counties, Leer and Mayendit and it took the combined efforts of humanitarian actors to reverse it.

The warring parties reached an agreement the following year and have formed a three-year transitional government aimed at pacifying the country and leading it to democratic elections.

Dire consequences

South Sudan is one of the most vulnerable countries due to climate change and its consequences can worsen humanitarian crises.

The long-term effects of climate change like aridification and short-term impacts of climate variability including floods and droughts can disrupt livelihoods, food security and increase the risk of displacement and violence.

According to an OCHA reports, in 2020, more than 700,000 people were affected by severe flooding. This year, more than 620, 000 people have been displaced.

Coupled with droughts, the floods have affected livelihoods and food security creating resource scarcities and increasing competition between communities, including pastoralists and farmers.

As its toll worsens every year, families recovering from the war just looked on helplessly as gains in the last three years of peace just vanish overnight.

“I never lost a single goat during the war but this year, the floods have claimed 36 of them already,” Gatluak Char Puok, told Juba Echo in an interview in Bentiu.

“These floods are more threatening to my life than even that war,” the 60-year-old visually impaired says.

Unity State lies in the SUDD, the biggest marshland in the world and it keeps rising higher and higher every year, robbing the people of their farms and livestock. The floods have not spared the wildlife.

“It is hard to contemplate the fact that I must seek refuge again,” Angelina Nyalok Gai, a 39-year-old mother of six told Juba Echo from Bimruok camp for people who fled floods.

The camp in Bentiu town has overnight become a safe haven to thousands fleeing from Guit, Mayom and other counties neighbouring the capital.

A family displaced with their livestock at Bimruok camp outside Bentiu

Necessities hard to come by

Basic needs are hard to come by and the people have resorted to fish and water weeds and wild roots for food.

“Water lilies are the best we will go for,” Gai said when asked on how she plans to feed her family during displacement.

She has lived in the camp for two months and has not even accessed any medical assistance, turning to wild roots and other herbal remedies to treat fever or stomach upsets in her children.

“Even if I go to hospitals, it can take four days, they keep saying come back tomorrow, to see a doctor,” Gai says.

“The best is to look for the local herbs.”

The common diseases affecting those who have fled the floods include malaria, throat infections and cough, diarrhoea as well as malnutrition among other.

Challenges include delivery of drugs to the population, the Director General in the Ministry of Health, Elijah Makuei Guol told Juba Echo.

“It is very difficult now to deliver services because all health facilities are flooded,” Guol says.

“All the drugs from the countryside have been withdrawn to Bentiu,” he says.

Guol acknowledged that very poor environmental management in the production of oil is contaminating the rivers and swamps in the region, a big health threat to the people.

The State has witnessed children born deformed and fingers point at pollution from the oil, he says.

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