A scramble for safety in flooded South Sudan town

Aid groups are racing to provide support to almost one million South Sudanese in need of lifesaving assistance after abnormally heavy rains that began in July plunged large swathes of the country under water.

Earlier this month, photojournalist Alex McBride travelled to the eastern town of Pibor one of the worst affected areas, where health centres are submerged, communities are crammed together on higher ground, and the water shows no signs of receding.

Only small helicopters are currently able to land on the town’s flooded runway, which is hampering relief efforts, while a lack of dry land elsewhere is making it hard to assist the roughly 140,000 people who live in the wider area.

Pibor sits on a layer of what is known as black cotton soil, which struggles to absorb heavy rainfall and relies upon the heat of the sun to evaporate it.

The soil is not absorbing the water; there’s no space for storage, no capacity to put more than six specialised staff on the ground at one time, said Maria Teresa de Magalhaes, an emergency coordinator with medical charity Medecins Sans FrontiAres.

Everything and everywhere is covered with water; we cannot access a better place.

An estimated 420,000 people across South Sudan have been displaced by the floods driven by a weather phenomenon called the Indian Ocean Dipole and roughly 40,000 acres of cropland were destroyed, just as the farming season was about to begin, the World Food Programme said.

Heavy rainfall and flooding has also affected several other East African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, where 370,000 people are displaced after two rivers burst their banks.

On a visit to Pibor last week, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator, Alain Noudehou, said more than $60 million would be required to save lives across the country and protect the fragile humanitarian gains made over the course of a year-long ceasefire from South Sudan’s civil war.

For now, 10,000 households in Pibor have escaped onto small patches of dry land, where the ground is slightly higher than the surrounding flat landscape. Man-made mud walls are all that separates these remaining dry areas from the floodwater.

Some 2,700 individuals are living in makeshift shelters on one of the dry areas, MSF said. The 300-square-metre area, once an open space used for public meetings and celebrations, has just one functioning borehole for those displaced.

A healthcare centre run by MSF accessed by The New Humanitarian by boat has been totally submerged. Tents, vehicles, and buildings that once housed an operating theatre and a medical storage room are all under water. Rowboats are now the only way to move around.

In the village of Gumuruk, a 15-minute helicopter ride from Pibor, an elderly woman, Joung Maze, stood shin-deep in water outside her home explaining that she’d heard stories about intense flooding from her father but never seen it in person.

Everything and everywhere is covered with water; we cannot access a better place, she said. There used to be very good water from the tap now we have to drink dirty water.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir declared a state of national emergency last month, but David Yau Yau, the governor of Pibor, said the national government has not yet taken any initiative towards this situation.

The floods come at a delicate moment for the country. Last week President Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar agreed to delay the formation of a unity government by 100 days, after missing a 12 November deadline.

The two sides signed a peace deal in September 2018 after five years of civil war but have been unable to finalise negotiations on core elements of the agreement such as the formation of a unified army.

Source: The New Humanitatian