Malene Kamp Jensen
Drought followed by flooding is becoming a vicious cycle
“The water came quickly, taking one village after another,” said 30-year old Nyaroun, holding her one-year-old daughter, Nyajal, close to her chest at a UNICEF supported hospital in Bentiu, South Sudan. The little girl was brought here when her tummy started swelling weeks after floodwaters kept rising - taking their food, cattle and home in the process.
They are one of tens of thousands of families who have fled villages swallowed by an ever-rising White Nile river, drowning cultivated land, livestock and belongings of already struggling communities in Unity State in South Sudan, an area long impacted by conflict and drought.
Now, in addition to COVID-19, the flooding has added another layer of human misery and a crisis on top of crises.
The flooding - a third year in a row for the state but a first of this kind for Bentiu and Rubkona - has caused massive displacement. The number of internally displaced due to conflict in the areas around Bentiu and Rubkona alone has already grown from around 90,000 people to some 120,000; while the latest human wave pushed here by flood water is about 46,000.
People are surrounded by hip-high flooding in the shallow parts, fenced in by make-shift dykes created with the support of United Nations Peacekeepers.
But unlike other floods from radical weather around the world, the water near Bentiu has been here since February, and is expected to stay for months longer as the once bone-dry ground is fully saturated.
With dead animals and washed-out latrines in the mix, the water provides the perfect breeding ground for water-borne diseases and mosquitos that carry malaria.
Children swim in it to get relief from the scorching heat during the day. And adults - women in particular - venture in to get wood from what was once their homes to patch together new ones on dry land.
They have little choice. Trees are under water, making even firewood for cooking difficult to come by. Add to the misery, snakebites are becoming more frequent as they too are seeking higher grounds.
Food and other essentials, however, are becoming scarce. Roads that provided the main supply and trade route to the capital, Juba, or Khartoum in Sudan have been washed away - driving the availability of goods down and prices up.
It is taking a toll on the population. With many of the men bringing cattle to higher grounds and in search of food for their animals, women and children make up the majority in this area. And many, especially children, are getting sick.
“The health situation is very bad,” said Dr. Duol Biem, Director General, Ministry of Health, Unity State. “We’re seeing more acute watery diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria, and malnutrition has worsened,” he said. “And the water is still coming with all of these towns under threat. I have never seen that in my life.”
UNICEF is working with the government and local officials, as well as donors and partners to provide support to children and their families.
“This includes safe drinking water, sanitation, life-saving vaccinations, including against COVID-19 for adults, basic healthcare and nutrition for mothers and children, and treatment for babies and young children who have already become malnourished,” explained David Kidega, UNICEF Nutrition Officer based in Bentiu.
The good news is that dykes are holding - for now. But water is already seeping through in some spots, including the road in Rubkona that leads to the airstrip.
The worry is that the floodwater will stay, and when the next heavy rains are expected in April or May, it will unleash additional water and lead to even more misery and illness.
At Bentiu’s hospital, Dr. Diang Puch, 36, said that the flooding continues to bring in “more and more children,” many severely malnourished and with acute diarrhea.
Little Nyajal is one of the lucky ones, Dr. Puch said. The little girl is responding to treatment and is recovering. But with unpredictable weather that many attributes to climate change, her mother Nyaroun is concerned about what the future might hold for Nyajal and her three older children.
“When we were in our village we had food and cows,” said Nyaroun. “The problem is coming from the flooding.”
UNICEF thanks our generous donors who have contributed against the 2021 Humanitarian Action for Children (HAC) appeal, such as the governments of Canada, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, the United States through CDC and USAID; and the European Union Humanitarian Aid (ECHO).