Bentiu, South Sudan (CNN) — Many of the major highways through Unity state are now completely submerged, but traffic remains. There are no cars, just people, some swimming, others wading, making their way through the heavy, sediment-laden water. The luckier ones glide in canoes with their cattle and possessions that they have been able to save from the floods.
In this transit, between the cities of Bentiu and Ding Ding, there is a group of women who are pushing to dislodge their makeshift raft that is stuck in the mud, carrying the weight of six children. The men of the family returned north to keep their cattle safe, and the women pushed for four days in the hope of reaching higher ground. Along the way, they ran out of food, says one of the women, named Nereka. Her 5-month-old baby cries as she talks.
“Of course I am worried about my children,” she said. “That’s why we keep moving.”
Wracked by years of conflict, there has hardly been time for peace in the world’s newest nation to start building. Barely 200 kilometers of its roads are paved. Now, South Sudan is dealing with biblical floods that began as early as June and have been exacerbated by the climate crisis, which it had little to do with creating.
This deluge, which is the worst in the last 60 years according to the UN, has swallowed not only the very roads that people need to escape, but also their farms, houses and markets.
For years, South Sudan has been experiencing wetter-than-normal rainy seasons, while its dry seasons are getting drier. The rainy season is over, but the water that has accumulated for months has not yet receded.
South Sudan is one of many places around the world struggling with this dual problem of drought followed by extreme rains, which together create the optimal conditions for devastating floods.
More than 850,000 people have been affected by the floods, the UN agency that coordinates relief efforts in the country told CNN, and some 35,000 of them have been displaced.
Remote towns like Ding Ding are now largely abandoned. The traditional thatched roofs of many houses in the area protrude above the water, but their walls remain submerged.
Some foragers here have resorted to eating the lilies that have begun to sprout on the surface of the floodwater, as an entirely new ecosystem begins to form in this radically changed landscape.
It is a bleak outlook for a country that is only 10 years old. After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, just two and a half years later, South Sudan plunged into a brutal civil war that did not end until last year. Deadly and inter-communal violence remains common as people fight over increasingly scarce grazing land.
competing for resources
South Sudan is no stranger to seasonal flooding, but Unity state officials say they haven’t seen anything of this magnitude since the early 1960s. 90% of the state’s land has been affected by flooding. , and there are only five months left for the next rainy season. Bentiu officials say they are worried the situation will only get worse.
“We have been told that the water behind it is not going to go away now, it is not going to recede or dry up. It is going to take a while because it is deep water,” said Minister Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, Minister of Lands, Housing and Services. State public.
Scientists are now able to calculate to what extent the climate crisis may have influenced most extreme weather events. But in this part of the world, it’s notoriously difficult to measure with certainty because it has huge variations in its natural climate to begin with.
It is especially difficult to make projections about drought, but what scientists do know is that the warmer the Earth gets, the Horn of Africa and its surrounding countries will experience more extreme rainfall, making it more susceptible to flooding.
This is largely because a warmer atmosphere can retain more moisture, which leads to more rain.
The world is already 1.2°C warmer than it was before it began to industrialise, and Africa as a whole is experiencing a temperature rise above the global average.
For those dealing with this problem in South Sudan, the climate crisis is clearly here and offers the rest of the world a glimpse of the complications it could bring.
“We’re feeling climate change. We’re feeling it,” said John Payai Manyok, the country’s deputy director of Climate Change. “We’re feeling the droughts, we’re feeling the floods. And this is becoming a crisis. It’s leading to food insecurity, it’s leading to more conflict within the area because people are competing for the few resources that are available.”
Although droughts and floods may seem like polar opposites, they are more related than is apparent.
“After a long period of drought, the ground can be hardened and very dry, so there will be more runoff, which will aggravate the risk of flooding,” explains Caroline Wainwright, a climatologist at the University of Reading, who studies the region of East africa.
“And all of this potentially helps make the storms bigger and the rains more intense. That’s something we might expect to see more of: dry spells and these really intense storms.”
The question now is not just how to clean up the mess, but how to adapt to better withstand these extreme weather disasters.
Like many nations bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, South Sudan accounts for 0.004% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, on the other hand, represents more than 15%. But much of the suffering here is due to a lack of tools and systems to prevent an extreme weather event from becoming a humanitarian disaster.
Yet the industrialized world, which has played the biggest role in the climate crisis, is still failing to deliver on the $100 billion a year it has promised the developing world to help it cut emissions and adapt to massive changes. A UN report released last month found that the costs of adaptation in the developing world are already between five and ten times higher than current funding. By mid-century, they are expected to reach $500 billion.
While its neighboring countries are building more permanent dams and levees, South Sudan has not adapted and remains at the mercy of its rivers, Manyok said. Human activity is also worsening the health of rivers and their ability to retain water during heavy rains.
Manyok said the country desperately needs to adapt.
“We must introduce water-friendly and efficient technologies, and along the Nile we must build dams and remove siltation,” Manyok said.
Sedimentation is often caused by silt or soil erosion, and can build up in rivers and block the natural flow of water, exacerbating flooding.
a destroyed school
Several areas of Rubkona, a commercial town near Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, have been abandoned. The markets and houses of this town seem like ghosts, submerged under the water that continues to rise at a slow and tortuous pace.
Nearby, Pakistani engineers from the UN mission are using what few heavy machines are available to repair and reinforce a hastily constructed mud dam that has kept the airport and a camp of nearly 120,000 displaced people dry. UN officials say a break here would be catastrophic.
The battle is constant, since each day the water continues to rise through the wall of the dam. It filters down the red clay road towards the airstrip and the gates of the camp.
The vast majority of IDPs arrived years ago, fleeing South Sudan’s brutal civil war. They now share increasingly limited space and resources with newcomers.
The Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, which is located inside the camp, is overflowing with patients. Staff are treating a massive increase in the number of malnourished babies since the flooding began.
“We’ve had 130 cases in the last month. Before, we could have 30 to 40 in a month,” CEO Kie John Kuol said.
Back in Ding Ding, the village school, which was rebuilt in 2017 after it burned down during the civil war, is also partially submerged in water: progress is once again suspended. According to Unicef, the floods have destroyed, closed or prevented access to more than 500 schools in South Sudan.
As Professor Kuol Gany walks through his classroom, the water is up to his knees. Behind him is a blackboard scrawled with equations and definitions of English words.
“Relief is the help that is given to people during a catastrophe”, reads one of the definitions.
Gany had only been teaching in this new building for a few years before the floods hit. He worries that he will have to leave him, and even his city, forever.
“The water keeps rising,” he says. “There are diseases and there are snake bites. And we are also drinking this water.”
Ding Ding resident James Ling said he briefly returned to see what he could salvage from his eight-year-old home. He waded through the water to get to his house, but found nothing except the drawings of his children on the walls.
“Since the conflict broke out, we have never rested,” he said. “We have been constantly on the run, displaced. Our children have had no relief from the dangers.”