Many people think the River Nile is all about Egypt. But this huge waterway, traversing much of north-east Africa from its twin sources in Ethiopia and Uganda to its mouth in the Mediterranean, also flows through South Sudan.
The Nile doesn’t just carry water: during the rainy seasons, when roads across South Sudan become sticky, slippery, muddy baths, it is one of the only ways to transport supplies and food. Currently however, the conflict that has been devastating the country since last December is preventing these essential supplies from getting through.
According to the latest UN figures, 1.1 million people have had to leave their homes to escape the violence; a further 400,000 South Sudanese have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. Whether these people stay within South Sudan or cross borders, they place additional pressure on already stretched resources – so they rarely find the sanctuary they seek.
About 3.5 million people are experiencing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity. On top of this, there is a severe outbreak of cholera – a disease which can be deadly at the best of times, but is even more so when its victims are already weakened through malnourishment.
In July 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest country, breaking away from Sudan after an independence referendum. However, the euphoria that followed independence was short-lived and complex challenges have resurfaced since it became a nation. South Sudan and Sudan have been unable to resolve their issues over their shared border, oil revenues and citizenship. And seven months ago internal political divisions within South Sudan caused violence to erupt in the capital, Juba.
This violence quickly spread to much of the north and east of the country, where it continues to rage. In May, cholera first appeared in the capital and in the last week, early warning systems predicted a famine could hit the country as soon as August.
When I was last in South Sudan, I spoke to a number of people who had experienced the grim impact of this situation: husbands with dead wives; mothers with missing children; families far from home with little hope of return. Talking to these people, the knock-on effects of their displacement become clear: violence erupts near their homes; they grab what they can and flee; men leave behind the livestock they rear; women abandon the gardens where they grow food; children say goodbye to their schools.
The shadow of famine which stretches ominously over this country is a direct result of this displacement.
It is a dire situation, but it is not hopeless. Mercy Corps has been working in South Sudan since it became independent. When violence erupted in Juba in December, we launched an emergency response to provide households with kits including blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, soap and sleeping mats.
We are providing water and sanitation assistance. This means providing clean water that is safe to drink, promoting hygiene and cholera awareness and building emergency latrines. In some areas we have been distributing seeds and tools so that vulnerable families can plant crops and prevent widespread food shortages.
Mercy Corps is the only international development organisation with its headquarters in Scotland and we are calling on the Scottish and Edinburgh public to help keep the situation in South Sudan front of mind. If we don’t, this will become a “forgotten conflict” and the impact on millions of lives will be devastating.
• Sandy Biggar is programme officer with Mercy Corps