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Physical frailty was the least of it. Yes, the mother was an invalid, out of sight atop the makeshift raft, but the children were bright-eyed and strong. The little ones were up to their necks in the floodwaters, the older girls up to their chest and hauling the raft, on which was stacked all they had left in the world: a couple of chickens, some plastic chairs, buckets, a knife, some rags and clothes. They were exhausted and afraid of the vipers that slipped around them in the water, but they kept moving forward. Their father waded ahead, with their infant brother.
“We are tired of water,” Nyalol Wang called out. She was 28 years old, the oldest sister. She did not know where they were going, they just wanted to find dry land.
That was not easy.
The country, for hundreds of kilometers in every direction, was underwater.
We were traveling in an amphibious vehicle of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) when we met the family. The vehicle had large tires and was capable of delivering a ton of food supplies in marshes and swamps. The waterway we plowed down narrowed to the horizon. In normal times it was a dirt road, cut straight through the bush from the town of Bentiu in the Upper Nile State of South Sudan to the River Lol, a distance of some 50 kilometers.
These have not been normal times. South Sudan experienced once-in-a-century rains in 2019, and then again in 2020. In August 2021, with the land saturated even after average rainfall, the White Nile flooded. The Lol was stopped by the weight of the waters. It began to flow backwards and burst its banks — the worst flooding in 60 years. There are some one million people here among the world’s permanently displaced by climate change, alternately at risk from floods and droughts.
The Nile has two main tributaries. The shorter and more voluminous Blue Nile tumbles down from the Ethiopian Highlands, and the longer and more sinuous White Nile flows from Lake Victoria and — crucially — splitting into innumerable channels in the flatlands of the Sudd before flowing north to join the Blue Nile at Khartoum. Last year’s floods overran all the spates and runnels running into the Sudd, a wetland at the center of South Sudan that spans some 57,000 square kilometers, or twice the size of Belgium.
As world leaders and diplomats prepared to meet in Egypt for this month’s COP27 climate talks, the rains returned. Dykes built to protect the camps for displaced flood victims breached and flooded again, according to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. For the first time the UN agenda includes “ loss and damage,” an approach by which the developing nations most vulnerable to climate extremes might seek compensation from wealthy emitters. If such payments for climate losses ever existed, they might very well go here — that is, if the government and aid agencies are capable of spending the money.
The Sudd is vast and stagnant, impenetrable and dangerous. There are few buildings, not even brick structures from the British colonial period. District commissioners meet communities under a tree. “We have failed the people there,” says Mayiik Deng, the South Sudanese foreign minister.
Every map of the Sudd is out of date: the White Nile breaks apart into hundreds of channels that are choked with papyrus and change with every season. Assumptions about water flow and transpiration are based on modeling from before South Sudan’s independence in 2011. There are few functioning hydrology stations and almost no field-based research science.
Yet the Sudd is one of the richest living systems on the planet and home to Africa’s second-largest animal migration, after the Serengeti. A survey by conservationists estimated 8,000 elephants, 1.1 million white-eared kob antelope, and abundant birdlife. Underlying it is a tropical peatland equivalent to 3 gigatons of carbon.
“It is critical that we better understand and protect the Sudd, for people and for nature,” says Daniel Akech, a South Sudanese mathematician who leads a regional conservation initiative.
Aid workers from the WFP hammered on towards the Lol in search of isolated communities in need of emergency assistance. On every slight rise of dry land they found adults and children camped out. These were thin, precarious places, a meter high and a few meters wide, blackened from charcoal burning, and stinking of fish netted in the waters and gutted and hung up to dry without being salted.
The waters were oil-black and still. The termite mounds were drowned many meters down. Huts, pits, waste, and the bare trodden paths through the bush were effaced from the world. The luminous greenery, the pelicans, cranes, fish eagles, bees, snakes, fist-sized snails, all of that verdancy and life, summoned up the opposite of the popularly imagined wasteland. But the people had nothing and nowhere to go.
Survival happens without shelter, sufficient food, and requires depletion of the surroundings because affordable energy to boil water means harvesting biofuels such as dung, grass, wood, and charcoal. Just as damaging is the loss of cattle. It will take families six or seven years to replace cows perished in the floods. Even then, many families will not be able to settle the 20 or so cows necessary to secure a marriage contract for even one of their children. Experts worry that transhumance — the seasonal movement of South Sudan’s 40 million cattle over ever larger distances — will spread more disease among the weak surviving livestock.
Insecurity is potentially an even bigger worry. As the cycle of extreme flooding and extreme drought tightens around the Sudd, simply holding on to livestock is likely to become increasingly difficult. Flooding means no crops, no animals, no shelter, and dependency on food aid.
UN officials overseeing the emergency relief say many communities in the Sudd are unreachable and the situation remains tense: barges carrying food to some starving areas have been turned back by gunmen. As the waters recede there has been a resumption in lethal cattle raiding, with Dinka, Nuer, and Murle tribesmen armed with machine guns killing their enemies and sometimes stealing children away along with the cows.
Nilotic peoples, as the inhabitants of this region are known, have always adapted to the rains and dry spells which see the Sudd expand out and contract back. But something now is broken.
Flows into the White Nile have increased alongside the rising surface temperature of the Indian Ocean, leading to more rain into the Lake Victoria Basin. At least 800,000 people have been displaced by flooding in and around the Sudd, according to the UN. The camps in Bentiu alone are home to some 200,000 people.
Heat, malaria, intestinal parasites, and sleeping sickness from Tsetse flies help explain the lethargy in the Hai Salam camp in Bentiu. But mostly it is hunger. Everyone is famished. Across South Sudan, 1.3 million infants suffer from malnutrition and face long-term damage to their physical and mental development.
Children get a cup of porridge in the morning and another in the evening. Adults eat less. People in Hai Salam were reluctant to cook the fish caught in the floodwaters because of a rumor of contamination from nearby Chinese-owned oil fields. More likely, sickness had spread from the human and animal excrement stamped into the dust and carried on the air and from the dead cows which rot outside the tents where they fall.
James Manyarop, 51, showed one of his cows curled up in a pool of its own waste and breathing its last. “I had 200 cows. Fifty are dead and many more are dying.”
He said the cows all go the same way: the liver fails from drinking floodwater and the bowels gush until the animal collapses.
There was not a blade of grass to be seen in the camp. This, too, is a feature of climate change displacement: humans crowded into places where their culture and economy cannot follow.
The UN aid group crossed the Lol, which was wide and edging backwards, and found a few huts on the high ground of the river bank. They were traditional grass huts of the Nuer, conical and beautiful. The largest of them was a byre. In happier times, it would have been filled with cows, each tied to a wooden post. But there were no cows left alive there, and the byre was eerily empty.
The original occupants of the huts had fled. Several women and 30 children had been left behind. They were hardly surviving. One child had gangrene from a snakebite, another a skull fracture, others suffered from epilepsy and asthma. The children had never been to school. They survived on fish, the seed of water lilies, and wild pepper. The greatest fear of the women was that the children would starve, but the journey through the flood to the town of Bentiu — the only effective sanctuary in the region — to register for food rations was too far for them.
It is not clear what will happen in the years ahead to people like those living around the Sudd. The immediate prospects look disastrous.
Even an average rainfall means much of the land around the Sudd remains flooded and people will not be able to return to their villages or to plant crops for the next season. In Jonglei State, on the east bank of the Nile, the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières says starvation is close, with parents feeding their children with leaves from the trees, with no access to shelter or clean water. The effect is of a slow, churning vortex, in which the people around the Sudd are left to face both climate change and of a government which lacks the money and capacity to serve its people.
Over 90% of South Sudan’s revenue is dependent on oil revenues. Critics say most of the money is spent on debt payments and for services to government affiliated companies. The International Crisis Group estimates that South Sudan earns income only on 45,000 barrels of the 140,000 or so barrels it pumps every day. Paltry government salaries are often years in arrears and are settled on forward payments based on the sale of oil many years into the future. Fighting over oil revenues was part of the reason for the 2013 civil war that cost 400,000 lives.
The failure to move on from the war is one reason why donors led by the United States are tired of subsidizing South Sudan. Everyone worries about insecurity. Western governments advise against all travel to South Sudan. The few foreigners who make it are stymied by permits, extortion, and kidnapping threats.
There is fighting in every part of the country, including the breadbasket in the south. Most of the killing is over water and grazing rights, or outright banditry which prevents people moving around at night. Some 100,000 soldiers are sitting in camps without food, medicine, or pay.
There is every reason to think that the World Food Programme, the workhorse of UN humanitarian relief, is the best and perhaps only conduit for a more futuristic approach to climate adaptation. The WFP feeds 7.7 million South Sudanese – 63% of the population, and closer to 100% in flooded areas. In the absence of the government, it has to build roads and bridges and clear and dredge rivers to get the food where it is needed.
The WFP has large-scale digital tools, including the biometrics on 4 million recipients of food aid. But it does not have nearly enough money to do its job. It would like to give South Sudanese adults 2,100 calories a day in sorghum, maize, iodised salt, lentils, split peas, and vegetable oil, but it can only afford to distribute 1,000 calories a day.
This means for half of every month flood victims must eat whatever they can scavenge, or else starve. And, with donor resources strained by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these half-rations are likely to be further cut: the WFP has requested $1.15 billion from donors for its work in South Sudan for 2022, but has only been offered about half of that. The United States added extra funding in July, effectively keeping the relief program alive even while it “lamented” the ineffectiveness of the South Sudanese government. But climate change is likely to increase the costs year on year. The rising costs of fuel and wheat mean WFP will cut off 1.7 million recipients and end feeding efforts for children previously considered life-saving.
“We have failed the people there”
This kind of humanitarian triage will lead to a significant increase in food insecurity with pockets of catastrophic hunger, according to the WFP. The state of crisis leaves no resources for building the resilience of communities to climate change, including through improvements in farming, drainage, clean drinking water, improved meteorological and farming data, and development of communal assets such as wells and granaries.
The lack of money and interest make it even harder to deliver on the large infrastructure projects which could control the White Nile and protect the Sudd within the next decade. Most South Sudanese officials would like to see a dam built at the Fula rapids close to the border with Uganda. Norwegian consultants estimated construction costs of $1.4 billion, with production of 890 megawatts, more than doubling the electricity produced by the whole of South Sudan. It’s also less than 1% of California’s electricity production.
But a further deterioration in security and a predicted increase in temperature by 0.4 degrees Celsius before 2030 could make the project hard to finance and build. Instead, a system of well designed dykes, properly managed with satellite data and planted with trees, could help. So might dredging, straightening the river, and siphoning off water into channels and reservoirs.
The ongoing COP27 meeting Sharm-El-Sheikh, which is expected to close on Nov. 18, should be an opportunity to address the climate change crisis in places like South Sudan. First-ever formal negotiations on loss and damage underway at the summit take their urgency from the Egyptian hosts and the largest negotiating bloc, known as the G-77+China. In the first week at least three wealthy participants, Denmark, Germany and Austria, had contributed millions of dollars in funding. But even those nations behind the push don’t expect payments to happen before 2024 — and even that is far from assured.
There are likely to be competing priorities, even among supporters of loss damage. Egypt has also signaled a priority to secure a larger water flow from the White Nile, including through the completion of the Jonglei Canal project meant to divert water around the Sudd. The machine digging the canal was destroyed in the civil war in 1983. Egypt believes the project can boost its water supply by 7%.
This may threaten the existence of the Sudd, which the UN Environmental Programme estimates can provide $1 billion in services to the South Sudan economy every year mainly in protecting diversity, regulating water, and better managing rising temperatures.
Population growth also turns the vortex. When British engineers first began work controlling the Nile waters in Egypt in the 1880s to improve irrigation and flood control, Egypt’s population was 7 million. It is now 105 million and expected to reach 160m by 2050. South Sudan’s population is growing even faster, from 4 million in 1980 to 11.4 million today. The UN says that it is the combination of population growth with poor governance and insecurity that is putting the people at risk.
The world is not totally indifferent. In 2023, religious leaders including Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will visit South Sudan on a peace mission. They are expected to emphasize climate justice and how, despite being a minor emitter of greenhouse gasses, South Sudan’s farming, forestry, and transport have all been hit by climate change.
But help oriented around the climate crisis hasn’t been forthcoming. The promises of $100 billion a year to emerging economies made by developed economies at the 2009 COP in Copenhagen have not been met. That’s a fraction of the sums needed to transition economies towards carbon zero and keep the world within a 2º Celsius increase above pre-industrial levels, as set out in the Paris Agreement.
Africa will have 2.2 billion people by 2050 — a quarter of the world’s population and nearer half of all children. Yet sub-Saharan Africa has contributed only 0.55% of historical carbon emissions. This discrepancy is even larger for South Sudan. The country has historically emitted 35 megatons of carbon against 509 gigatons for the US since 1850.
South Sudan has potential, with 80% of the country consisting of arable land that’s suitable for cash crops. But most investments in agriculture have failed since independence, and there’s little indication that either donors or the government are ready to think coherently and urgently about new solutions in the next decade of rising temperatures.
The World Bank says 86 million Africans may be made homeless by climate change in the next decades. The displaced people around the Sudd are the first wave. The way they are being treated threatens to become a standard response for victims of global warming everywhere: enough resources to stay alive, but no lasting solutions.
J.M. Ledgard is a novelist and a technologist focused on scalable AI and robotic solutions for emerging economies. Previously, he was a longtime Africa correspondent for The Economist.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center
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