South Sudan: a landscape of contrasts and a desperate struggle for water

Sudan Południowy

As the sun rises over the land of South Sudan, the landscape appears picturesque – fields of grain glimmer in the morning light, and herds of wild animals roam the plains in search of water. But these are just appearances, behind which lies a story of struggle for survival, not so much because of predators, but because of enemies that are much harder to escape from – water shortages, drought and floods.

South Sudan, a country rich in natural resources and boasting exceptional wildlife, is facing one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of modern times. The region’s population, despite being surrounded by an abundance of rivers and streams, is facing an increasingly drastic water shortage. How did it come to pass that a land so generously endowed by nature becomes a place where every drop of water is more valuable than gold? I asked Daria Wrażeń, coordinator of PAH programs in the region, about this.

Agnieszka Hobot: The first question will be about the cause of the crisis. Why are South Sudan’s water shortages so severe for the country’s population and economy?

Daria Wrażeń: I would start by saying that South Sudan is a country that is relatively rich in water resources, but due to a lack of infrastructure, less than half of the population has access to them. These are mainly underground resources, the extraction of which is either very difficult or even impossible. The trouble is also treatment and distribution, so economic aspects. In summary, the water is there, but the cost of extracting it is very high, and there is a lack of specialized equipment and trained engineers.

Desperate people are drinking surface water. Among other things, the White Nile flows through South Sudan, whose waters need to be treated and distributed. There is no water supply in Juba, the country’s capital. Water taken from the river is delivered by tanker trucks to cities. In housing estates, tanks are located near blocks of flats, where it is stored. When it runs out, order a refill by phone. This is a very expensive solution.

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pic. PAH

A.H.: Expensive and, I guess, very cumbersome to use on a daily basis. But I wanted to ask a little more about surface water. Is the pollution of the rivers so great that it is unsafe to use their water, yet people take it anyway?

D.W.: In South Sudan, pollutants are discharged directly into waterways without prior treatment. Sometimes people, in an act of desperation, are forced to drink such water. This causes a number of health problems. The most vulnerable, of course, are children.

Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH) not only builds and repairs wells, but also conducts information campaigns. We educate South Sudanese about the dangers of consuming dirty surface water, but in many cases, even having knowledge in this area does not affect how they act. If the residents of a village have the opportunity to go to a deep well, they naturally do so, but this is not always possible. In many cases, this involves not only having to walk miles in the blazing sun, but also being unable to work or study during this time. Providing water is the task of women and girls, who, by doing so, are deprived of the opportunity to develop and strive to improve their plight.

A.H.: Which regions are most affected by the drought?

D.W.: The situation is dynamic. Just last year we had a problem with excess water. South Sudan was hit by record floods in 2021, affecting up to one million people. They took absolutely everything away from the people. This was the result of heavy rainfall, which in turn was caused by elevated temperatures in the Indian Ocean. I say this because it is not only the drought that is causing the problem of access to water.

Flooding destroys water and sanitation infrastructure, inundating wells and latrines, and then contaminated waterlogging crops and water intakes. We encountered such floods in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Everyone was expecting the situation to reoccur, meanwhile, the rainy season is beginning in South Sudan, and the health minister is closing schools due to an extreme heat wave. Their scale is unprecedented. There is beginning to be a shortage of water. Nature is once again showing people its unpredictable face.

A.H.: Then let’s go back in time some more. What has the situation been like over the past decade?

D.W.: The violence and unpredictability of phenomena has increased significantly. There have been alternating rainy and dry seasons in South Sudan, and now there can only be talk of droughts and floods. This makes farming no longer profitable, resulting in famine. The problem is getting worse every year. There is no denying that this is the result of climate change, for which the countries of the Global South are hardly responsible. There is virtually no industry in South Sudan, and the road network is almost non-existent. South Sudanese contribute little to greenhouse gas emissions, and pay the highest price.

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pic. PAH

A.H.: How is the South Sudanese government responding to this crisis?

D.W.: South Sudan is a very poor and very corrupt country. There is a shortage of resources and educated personnel to independently undertake initiatives that empower the state and its citizens. Also a problem is pervasive crime due to poverty and lack of prospects. Driven by hunger and insecurity, young people join armed groups and fight each other.

In summary, supporting the public at least in issues of access to drinking water is mainly handled by NGOs here. And these can’t handle all the problems.

A.H.: Earlier you mentioned the unprofitability of agricultural production under constantly changing and extreme climatic conditions. On the other hand, the basis in agriculture should be to meet the nutritional needs of one’s loved ones. Is what South Sudanese subsistence farmers are growing so far insufficient that people are starving?

D.W.: This is a growing problem, and there are many reasons. The truth is that all aspects of life are connected to water: health, education, agriculture. Lack of permanent access to it is one of the main barriers to development, including agriculture. And on the other hand, its excess in the form of flooding destroys crops and reduces the fertility of soils. Before the series of flood waves in recent years, we worked with local communities, teaching them how to grow home gardens for their own consumption, how to sell the surplus produced, and how to get the means to support their families in this way. Now it is impossible. Floods alternating with droughts have caused these people to not really see any crops for years. They feel resigned and discouraged from doing anything.

In addition, there is an armed conflict that is constantly on the move, meaning that even if a drought or flood doesn’t come, people have to flee because of violence that threatens their safety. They become refugees in their own country, they don’t have a piece of land to feed their families, they start selling off their possessions to get food. Most often, they also do not have the means to lease a piece of the field. Their situation is becoming increasingly hopeless, with no prospects for improvement.

At the moment, almost all food available in South Sudan is imported from abroad. The armed conflict in Ukraine has left its mark on the international market. Not only is the price of wheat very high, but the cost of transportation and its length have also increased. Conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have made it necessary for container ships to bypass the Red Sea and the Black Sea and sail around Africa to reach South Sudan, via countries on the continent’s coast. The high cost of living is inextricably linked to hyperinflation, which is really high in South Sudan.

In summary, here we have climate change, droughts, floods, the huge cost of transporting food and the very high price of buying it, and the inability to grow crops. This is a ready recipe for disaster on a scale that is difficult to predict.

A.H.: Drawing a simple conclusion from what you said: there are currently no conditions for a normal life in South Sudan, so migration is inevitable. The time may soon come when desperate residents of the Global South, struggling to survive, will move north en masse. What, in your opinion, would avoid such a situation?

D.W.: I think in places where people are experiencing war and famine we are dealing with a very dangerous element that is hard to stop. People are beginning to be driven by frustration and desperation. In my opinion, if we, as Europe, do not start exporting innovations and ways to deal with crises to the countries of the Global South, their citizens will soon have to flee the place they call home to save their health and lives or those of their loved ones.

If the last river dries up, the last source of drinking water, these people will have no choice but to move to areas with access to the necessities of life – water and food. Let’s remember that first there are movements within the country itself, then the region, and only then to another continent. For all intents and purposes, this is already happening – migrations will only intensify.

You had the opportunity to speak with my colleague from Madagascar, where there is also a huge water problem, South Sudan is not an isolated case. The only way to stop the catastrophe is to intensify actions leading to the mitigation of the effects of climate change and support the population in the most vulnerable areas.

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pic. PAH

A.H.: Which direction should international aid take? What would produce the best results in your opinion?

D.W.: We, as PAH, are mainly involved in life-saving humanitarian aid in South Sudan, here and now, providing, for example, water and food for the needy, putting up toilets, supporting schools or clinics. Such measures are necessary, but they will not solve the situation and will not enable the country to function independently in the future. I think we should start allocating very large funds for development cooperation, for facilitating self-reliance.

I mentioned earlier that South Sudan has access to water and to a huge amount of sunshine, which is the basis for development. Infrastructure would be a way to solve its own problems. There would be an incentive to create a network of schools. It’s hard to talk about education, development and self-reliance when children are dying of hunger and thirst. But it is also impossible to separate the two areas, changes must proceed in parallel.

Polish Humanitarian Action has been working in the areas now belonging to South Sudan since 2006. This allows us to compare the place two decades ago and today. We are seeing positive changes. They are very, very slow, but nevertheless give motivation to keep working.

In Poland, we have similar water resources, yet we are able to cope with shortages. The scale is incomparable, because even if we see rivers drying up or vegetation drying up, people are not dying of thirst. If South Sudan had the tools of education and infrastructure, it would certainly be better able to cope with natural disasters.

Let me emphasize again – in order to effectively counteract disasters and efficiently mitigate their effects, it is necessary to invest in education, in development and in health care in parallel. And water connects to each of these aspects. So what if the children go to school, if they get thirsty they won’t be able to focus on their studies. Or girls won’t be able to graduate from a school with no toilet – regular absences due to menstruation will prevent them from getting an education and improving their livelihood. We are not directly involved in health care, but we are building wells and latrines in hospitals in cooperation with partners. Without it, they are unable to function – again the theme of access to clean and safe water recurs.

A.H.: What could I wish PAH for the near future in relation to its activities in South Sudan?

D.W: I would wish us, first of all, financial support from outside, because without this we cannot continue our work, and at the same time we cannot give up our activities. There is no denying that the international situation is difficult and dynamic. South Sudan is not a country that makes headlines in the news. The weaker the interest in a country, the less funds are allocated to humanitarian activities. As recently as five years ago, foreign support met the needs of 60 percent. needy.

Last year it was 35 percent, and this year it is expected to be even less. I dream that this trend will change. Providing access to safe water can be a force for social change and an incentive to eradicate extreme poverty. South Sudan has one of the most underfunded humanitarian crises going on, but at the same time it is a place with potential worth investing in.

In conclusion, let me share with you a reflection that moves me quite a bit. South Sudan is just one of many places in the world where thirst is not just a physical emotion, but a daily reality that determines the fate of entire communities. I wonder how the sense of responsibility of corporate, industrial giants manifests itself in the face of the catastrophe of the Global South. Considerations of corporate social responsibility fill the pages of reports and articles, but do not necessarily manifest themselves in concrete actions. The construction of a single well, although costing only a dozen-odd thousand zlotys, can bring relief to thousands of people, giving more than just water – giving hope for survival and a better tomorrow.

PAH’s activities in South Sudan are worth supporting – here.

Source of main photo: PAH

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