South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis further complicated by flooding

Severe flooding in South Sudan has affected more than one million people.

Hundreds of farms have been destroyed, homes submerged and crops failed following what our local network have described as the worst flooding in a decade. Humanitarian gains made during the past year’s ceasefire are in danger of being reversed. This comes amid heightened expectations for the country’s peace process as the country’s five-year civil war, thought to have killed around 400,000 people, was set to formally end on 12th November with the formation of a national unity government. This has been pushed back by 100 days due to the failure of rival leaders Riek Machar and Salva Kiir to reach an agreement.

Flooding

Almost half a million people have been displaced by unusually heavy seasonal flooding which began in July. This places upward pressure on aid agencies operating in a country where already more than a third of the population of 12 million are displaced and reliant on humanitarian assistance. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is the UN body responsible for emergency aid coordination, has estimated that floods have impacted around 30 counties across the country, including the worst affected areas of Ayod, Maban, Mayom, Nyirol, Pibor and Uror. An estimated 90% of homes in Pibor, on the border with Ethiopia, are underwater and many communities are concentrated on patches of higher ground, cut off from assistance. The rains are expected to continue for another four weeks. Although flooding occurs yearly, the level of flooding is significantly worse this year than in previous years, and is beyond what the usual mechanisms in place can prevent or mitigate.

Additional risks

Flooding is associated with an increase in the transmission of water-borne diseases like typhoid, cholera and hepatitis A, and vector-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever. The risk of vector-borne diseases is generally increased when there is significant population displacement, which is the case in South Sudan at present. There has been a noted rise in cases of malaria, gastrointestinal diseases and respiratory tract infections as a result of flooding. Cholera is also a significant concern, as people are continuing to drink from open water sources which have been compromised.

Flooding can also impact power supply, which in turn can affect water treatment facilities and healthcare centres. Only around a third of South Sudan’s population have access to electricity, most of whom are in urban centres, but it is likely that remote medical centres will have been affected by disruption to power supply.

It is likely that infrastructure will be significantly affected in the worst-impacted areas. Small bridges are likely to be weakened or destroyed, and roads waterlogged. Access to clean water is already a challenge in much of South Sudan, which will only be worsened by flooding. Where electricity and telecommunications infrastructure exists, it is likely to be damaged by flooding.

Localised clashes over resources are more likely to occur in the coming weeks. All of the worst-affected areas house communities whose livelihoods are reliant on agriculture or livestock; arable and grazing land is necessary for these communities to survive. If floodwaters have destroyed crops and grazing land to the extent that communities are forced from their own territory into others, the likelihood of resource battles will increase.

There is also a danger that battles for resources may take on an ethnic tone. Among others, the Dinka, Nuer, Anuak, Berta and Murle ethnic groups are in land that is currently severely flooded. Identity politics has been a significant driving force in South Sudan’s civil war, currently halted by a tenuous ceasefire. The Dinka ethnic group dominated President Salva Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army, while the Nuer comprised the majority of Vice-President Riek Machar’s rival force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition. Should battles for resources arise between different ethnic groups, it is more likely that conflict will spread.

Tenuous Peace Agreement

The flooding comes amid high political tensions as the deadline for the formation of a unity government, part of the most recent peace deal, has been pushed back 100 days from 12th November. The civil war began in December 2013 after a period of political infighting, when violence broke out between soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group who were aligned with President Salva Kiir and soldiers from the Nuer ethnic group who were aligned with then-Vice President Riek Machar. The war was characterised by mass killings, sexual violence and famine. Four million people have since been internally displaced or are refugees in neighbouring countries.

At present this ceasefire is distinguished from its predecessors in that the main warring factions are holding to it. Soldiers from Kiir’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Machar’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – In Opposition (SPLA-IO) are no longer in open warfare. However, clashes are ongoing between government forces and the National Salvation Front (NAS), particularly across the Equatoria region and central states. Militias and armed criminal groups are still active throughout the rest of the country. The rainy season traditionally halts much of the fighting in South Sudan owing to the difficulty of moving heavy weaponry and armed units, but the NAS remain active and killed several aid workers as recently as October.

The peace deal itself is also flawed. The agreement is based on a division of South Sudan into tribal ‘homelands’, patched together as an amalgamation of tribes. The result is likely to be widespread marginalisation. Most tribal homelands are multi-ethnic, but minority tribes within each area will be defined according to the dominant tribe, unable to participate in local government and likely unable to access the monopoly on land and resources. This is likely to present opportunities for the more belligerent or ambitious tribal leaders to sow discontent and mobilise support among their kinsmen. The systems of tribal patronage and self-preservation – previously the domains of the two main parties to the civil war – will likely become more widespread.

The coming weeks

It will likely take most of the dry season to attempt to clean up the damage caused by flooding. The displacement of more people will place significant pressure on humanitarian actors already struggling to accommodate the several million Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The coming dry season also brings with it an increased risk of conflict as militias and military units are better able to manoeuvre. In particular, the areas where the NAS are operational are likely to see an uptick in violence.

Advice to aid workers on the ground

While aid workers attempt to assist the communities affected by the flooding and ongoing violence, there are a number of things we recommend they do in order to keep themselves safe.

  • Pre-deployment: Ensure you undertake Hostile Environment Awareness Training ahead of deployment to South Sudan. Sign up to NGO and media forums for expertise from people already on the ground. Read into the ethnic make-up of the area you are going to; once deployed, ensure you retain an awareness of this and that you can be perceived as impartial by parties to the conflict.
  • Communications: Carry tried and tested communications devices, preprogrammed with all relevant emergency contacts. Note that many parts of South Sudan are not covered by network. We recommend the use of a satellite device or high frequency radio. Ensure that phones are well charged, and carry portable chargers.
  • Monitoring: Closely monitor the situation in South Sudan while in country. Be aware that the security situation is liable to change at short notice; be prepared to delay travel if ‘game changer’ security incidents are reported. Ensure you know what to do and who to call in the event of a security incident or medical emergency.
  • Health: Ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date and that you are aware of any water- or vector-borne diseases in the area you are working. Only consume bottled water and ensure food is safely prepared, with uncooked fruit and vegetables thoroughly washed in sterilized water. Ensure hands are washed before handling food or eating.
  • Journey management planning: Long distance journeys should be done by air. For travel outside of urban centres, enlist the support of a trusted and reliable local security/logistics provider. The vehicle of choice should be a well-maintained 4WD. While travelling, keep doors closed and windows locked at all times, and keep all bags and valuables hidden. Be vigilant in slow-moving traffic, at junctions, and at the gates of secure complexes. Regularly check your surroundings for suspicious activity; if you suspect the vehicle is being followed, you should instruct your driver to head to the nearest private security complex. Ensure you have access to local knowledge and language support. Before conducting a journey, obtain up-to-date ground intelligence on the situation a day before travel. Never attempt to cross flooded routes.
  • Accommodation: Unless you are housed at an NGO compound, book accommodation at comparably secure complexes. You should pre-identify a safe house in Juba if a local security deterioration occurs. Such locations need to be equipped with non-perishable foodstuffs, water, medical equipment, fuel and reliable communications that would enable you to stand fast for up to 72 hours. If a security incident is reported, you should endeavour to return to this location (where safe to do so) and then minimise movement. Healix GSOC is on hand to help with any requests for Assistance or Evacuation support.
  • Landmines and munitions: When operating in a new area, liaise with the local community on areas they avoid and if mined areas are marked, and with what. Ask about the local history of accidents related to mines and munitions. Keep to well-travelled routes and where possible, liaise with mine clearing agencies for their expertise. Be aware that landslides caused by flooding are liable to have shifted landmines, cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance to areas previously thought to be safe, so don’t overestimate local knowledge on these risks.
  • Rule of law: Avoid all interactions with the security forces unless it is unavoidable. If you see a roadblock ahead, approach with caution and divert onto another route if it’s possible. Allow your local contacts to handle any dealings with the security forces. Remain sensitive to the high level of government paranoia and the threat of harassment or detention. Do nothing that could attract the attention of the authorities, including taking photographs or lingering near key infrastructure.

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