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Desperate for food, mothers turn to water lilies

Countries
South Sudan
Sources
Action Against Hunger
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After three years of record-high flooding in South Sudan, families resort to eating water lily bulbs due to extreme hunger

Over the last three years, Nyadiang Gak watched her village in Old Fangak, South Sudan, slowly lose its fight against the floods. Her little piece of land has finally disappeared under the water, forcing her to seek refuge in higher and drier ground.

Nyadiang and her family moved to another village near Paguir, where Action Against Hunger runs the only Stabilization Center providing healthcare for miles. When Nyadiang arrived, she hoped to grow maize and sorghum.

"The flood destroyed everything people had," explains Nyadiang. "But we couldn't plant here either, because it’s also flooded…All the people who came here tried planting maize, but all of it was destroyed by the floods."

Last year’s floods made it impossible for Nyadiang and her family to harvest their crops, so they had no food to bring with them when they left their village.

"Before we migrated here, we had already lost our house. When we arrived, we settled in a small space on this island. But even here, we don't have any food to eat," says Nyadiang. "When there were no floods, we used to plant sorghum and maize, but now we don't have any seeds in our hands, so we make do with what we have.”

Across this flooded remote region of South Sudan, the usual safety nets have failed. Without seeds and with harvests damaged by the waters, there was no food to save for hard times. What little land that has not been completely submerged has turned to a muddy sludge, making it impossible to plant crops. Additionally, most of the area’s cattle – which provide milk when everything else fails - died after grazing in disease-infested floodwaters.

The women of Paguir and its surrounding areas, desperate to find food for their families, have turned to the water lilies that grow in the floodwaters as a last resort.

"We survive by collecting water lilies," explains Nyawech Giel, a grandmother who lost her home and her son to the floods.

Mothers, grandmothers, and even pregnant women travel by canoe or walk long distances through the floods and dive in and out of the water for hours – often the entire day -- looking for the bulbs, which grow underwater.

"We are not used to collecting water lilies, but the flood water forces us to collect them," says Bol Kek, another mother in Paguir. "We women are very strong in our hearts, and we bring food to our families."

Bol has seven children who depend on her daily trips to find water lilies. After she has collected dozens of bulbs, she returns home and combines the insides of the bulbs with weeds she finds on the ground to make a soup.

"My children depend on what I get. I cook for them, and they wait for me while I'm away collecting water lilies,” says Bol. "Life is so hard for us, but we keep strong. We are not happy living in the water for so long, collecting these water lilies."

At this time of year, cloudy skies and frequent rains make the water chilly.

"We go in the water when the sun is high and we return when the sun sets...You get cold in the water, especially if it is deep, this is the reason why some of us have developed a cough," explains Nyadiang. "I feel pain in my chest...the reason might be the work. When we bring the water lilies from the river, we must also grind them and, when you breathe in that dust, it makes you cough."

The lilies grow in bunches of four, and it takes at least two bunches to make a small meal for a child. Women like Nyawech, Nyadiang, and Bol must collect dozens of bulbs each day to help their children stave off starvation. Their nutritional value is low – but it’s all they have to prevent empty bellies.

"We don't have food, and these water lilies that we are eating don't have nutrients,” says Nyawech. “We eat them because we need to fill our stomach, but soon enough you will start feeling hungry again...These floods are very tragic to everyone. Everybody is suffering."

Hunger and disease run rampant in the damp and muddy areas where people live, and community members say that these are the worst floods in living memory.

"Before these two floods, I had a kitchen garden that put food on the table and I was also able to send my children to school,” says Nyadiang. "They can't go anymore because I don't have anything to support them with. We migrated to this highland, but we don't know if we will ever leave."

The floods have impacted the lives of so many across South Sudan, but still, people refuse to give up. Communities are constantly building and repairing dikes to protect what they have left from the encroaching floodwaters. Families defend their homes from the water by throwing it daily over the dikes. Throughout flooded areas, communities fight to stay safe from the water as mothers struggle to keep people fed.

“We are proud of the work that we are doing,” says Bol. “All of us go to collect water lilies because, without them, people could not survive."

Action Against Hunger’s Response

In Old Fangak and the surrounding areas, Action Against Hunger prevents and treats malnutrition, provides health care, and improves access to clean water, safe sanitation, and good hygiene. To help families displaced by the floods, we have launched an emergency response to provide food assistance, fishing kits, and seeds with support from the European Union. Our teams are also supporting administration of the COVID-19 vaccine in this hard-to-reach flood-affected area of South Sudan.