Epic floods leave South Sudanese to face snakes, disease, and starvation
Vulnerable populations, especially women and children, are hit particularly hard by rising waters.
Achan Akech, 30, a mother of five, gathers water in plastic containers as Ajoh Majur, 12, uses her body weight to activate a water pump to a borehole well. Like most other villages in the region, Panyaghor is in large part submerged under a few feet of water. There are only two functioning wells in the town and it’s unclear whether that water has also been contaminated.
Story and photographs byLynsey Addario
Published November 9, 2021
• 14 min read
Jonglei State, South Sudan Across vast stretches of this remote region, thousands of people are crammed onto patches of high ground bound by stacks of sandbags. For the third consecutive year, floodwaters have risen to the brink of the sandbag walls, leaving precarious little margin for more rain or excess water flowing down the Nile from neighboring countries experiencing higher levels of rainfall.
Almost every person has been displaced and is seeking shelter at former schools or warehouses, or huddling in makeshift tents strung together with plastic sheeting, corrugated metal, and tree branches. As of late October, both the airstrip and the road network were submerged, cutting off vital aid donations of medicine, food, tents, and other essential goods from the United Nations World Food Programme and other international humanitarian organizations.
The area around Bor—a Dinka word meaning “floods”—is no stranger to water, but multi-year inundations like this haven’t happened in South Sudan in more than six decades. The reasons are various but boil down to a combination of climate change, deforestation in neighboring Ethiopia, population growth, and poor water management across Africa, experts say. When the rainy season came in 2019, it didn’t arrive during the usual time frame in South Sudan. The downpours came at the beginning of dry season, in November, and in extraordinary quantities, as if “the whole sky came down, especially in Jonglei,” according to Mads Oyes, chief of field operations for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Also, the water didn’t subside during the dry season as it had in the past.
According to the United Nations, 27 of South Sudan’s 78 counties are impacted by the floods, affecting more than 630,000 people. Most of Twic East County in Jonglei State, for instance, is accessible only by canoes and motorboats with engines small enough to navigate between flooded homes, trees, street signs, and dikes that once demarcated the now uninhabitable land.
The flooding has disrupted everything—from the economy to health and education. The hardest hit segment of the population is the region’s most vulnerable: women and children. From enclave to enclave of high ground—more than 60 total—women and children are suffering from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, water-borne diseases, and upper respiratory infections. Many men have left to search for work and have not returned, leaving mothers to fend for themselves and multiple children.
While roughly two-thirds of the population has fled to more stable, dry ground, those who remain in the flood zones spend much of their time knee-deep in contaminated water. Families have lost their cattle, livestock, and their crops, leaving fish as their only source of food.
The health situation is dire, says Twic East County Commissioner Mabeny Kuot.
“There is an outbreak of malaria, and to find even antimalarial drugs in any of the health facilities is difficult,” he says. “To find even antibiotics in any of the health facilities is difficult. So, there are cases of waterborne diseases. And since the place is flooded … the cases of snake bites are very high.”
The onset of the floods preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by months, causing resources and funds from the international community to grassroots organizations to be cut or diverted. Residents are increasingly desperate, pleading for sandbags, plastic sheeting, medicine, tents, and food. Ambulances have been replaced by canoes or small motorboats. Pregnant women with complications rely on the goodwill of others to get them to the nearest functioning medical facility in Panyagor or Bor.
Various organizations are accepting donations to help flood victims in South Sudan. For more information, visit Community in Need Aid (CINA) or the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Funds sent to UNICEF should be earmarked for South Sudan.
As world leaders gather in Scotland for the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, Yves Willemot, chief of communication for UNICEF in South Sudan, stressed the need for an urgent response to the effects of climate change that are already destroying lands and lives.
“With COP26, there's a lot of thinking…about what should we all be doing together to avoid that climate change is going to have a huge impact in our future lives,” he says. “But what is often forgotten is that it's happening already.
“We need to make sure that response is put in place for those countries that today are paying the high price of the climate change consequences,” Willemot says. “It is shocking that ...South Sudanese are paying the price for something that they are very much the very last ones to be responsible for.”
National Geographic Explorer and photographer Lynsey Addario is the author of the memoir It’s What I Do.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Lynsey Addario’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.