Many people associate the River Nile with Egypt and perhaps, for Agatha Christie fans, with Hercule Poirot.
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.
Like most rivers, the Nile doesn’t just carry water: during the rainy seasons, when roads across South Sudan become sticky, slippery, muddy baths, this river 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.
The conflict has plunged the country deeper into an ongoing humanitarian crisis. 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 – that’s 30 per cent of the country’s population – 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 time, but is even more so when its victims are already weakened through malnourishment.
This is the situation in South Sudan today, on its third birthday.
On July 9, 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 met and spoke with 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 leave behind the gardens where they grow crops and vegetables; children leave behind their schools.
The shadow of famine which stretches ominously over this country is a direct result of this displacement. If families are pushed away from their land during the short seed-planting window, then even if they are able to return home later, they will have nothing to harvest.
It is a dire situation; but it is not hopeless.
Mercy Corps has been working in South Sudan since it became independent (and before that, in Sudan since 1985). When violence first erupted in Juba in December, we immediately launched an emergency response to provide households with kits including blankets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, soap and sleeping mats. By March, many other humanitarian organisations had returned to Juba. Ensuring there was no gap in shelter and the provision of essential items, we then transitioned our work to less accessible areas of the country.
Right now, we are providing emergency 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. We have also built child-friendly spaces and temporary learning centres within the sites for those displaced by the conflict, so that children have a safe place to play and continue their education.
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, Programme Officer, Mercy Corps