UNHCR warns of dire impact from floods in South Sudan as new wet season looms
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, warns today that prolonged flooding and displacement in South Sudan is expected to worsen when the wet season begins in May. Urgent action is needed to protect already vulnerable populations from its worst impacts.
South Sudan – a fragile country struggling to overcome political and economic challenges since it gained independence in 2011 – had its worst flooding on record in 2021. More than 835,000 people were impacted, according to the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs.
Record rainfall in the past three years and overflowing rivers have flooded thousands of hectares of farmland in eight states and prevented people from cultivating. Nearly 800,000 livestock are thought to have perished. This has decimated the subsistence farming that most communities depend upon to survive and substantially worsened food insecurity.
Thirty-three out of 79 counties are badly affected by the flood waters, which have not significantly subsided since the last wet season. The impacts are especially harsh in Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, where thousands of people have been displaced, while others are marooned in dike-ringed compounds, holding back floodwaters with mud, sticks and plastic sheeting.
The approaching wet season threatens to swamp extremely remote communities where residents are already surrounded by floodwater.
Such climate events will worsen in future, as extremes become the norm, not the exception. Globally, floods and droughts are becoming more frequent and intense. Developing countries, like South Sudan, contribute the least to carbon emissions, but are disproportionately affected.
During a five-day visit earlier this month, I toured Old Fangak, Malakal, Jamjang and Bentiu and saw the human impact of this flooding. I also travelled to Yida refugee camp, which in polar opposite is in the grip of drought.
Access to the most vulnerable populations is a major impediment for humanitarian relief. Poor or no road infrastructure make it hard for external support to reach remote locations, such as Old Fangak, where the former airstrip is completely submerged and currently unusable for landing.
Despite multiple challenges, residents have been extremely generous to those displaced by violence or hazardous weather events, often sharing the meagre resources they have. However, they need sustained support to avert devastating consequences.
In Old Fangak, I met with a twice-displaced woman in her 70s, who spent her days deep in murky floodwaters, desperately plugging a porous earthen dike with sticks and mud, to prevent water swamping the small compound housing her family. It is truly heartbreaking to see.
Ahead of the rains, marooned residents of Old Fangkak said they need water pumps to bail out their compounds. Heavy equipment is also needed to make sturdy flood barriers and build mounds to keep their livestock above water.
UNHCR has provided plastic sheets, hoes, spades, and sandbags to help strengthen their flood defenses, and is supporting families displaced to Malakal and other towns.
If we do not step up our support for the people of South Sudan, the climate crisis coupled with ongoing insecurity mean that resources will further shrink, leaving people with no means to survive.
We know that if we do not act now, the cost will be high, with devastating human consequences. Accelerated action is required to avoid mounting losses, ensure we are better prepared, and secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.
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