Epic floods leave South Sudanese to face snakes, disease, and starvation

Vulnerable populations, especially women and children, are hit particularly hard by rising waters.

Published 10 Nov 2021, 11:24 GMT
Bore hole well
Achan Akech, 30, a mother of five, gathers water in plastic containers as Ajoh Majur, 12, uses her body weight to activate a water pump to a borehole well. Like most other villages in the region, Panyaghor is in large part submerged under a few feet of water. There are only two functioning wells in the town and it’s unclear whether that water has also been contaminated.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

Across vast stretches of this remote region, thousands of people are crammed onto patches of high ground bound by stacks of sandbags. For the third consecutive year, floodwaters have risen to the brink of the sandbag walls, leaving precarious little margin for more rain or excess water flowing down the Nile from neighbouring countries experiencing higher levels of rainfall.

Houses are submerged in water in the village of Wanglei in Twic East County, Jonglei State.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Estela Juwan, 35, walks with two of her eight children through the flooded area surrounding her house, in the village of Wanglei, outside of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Juwan is carrying her one-year-old son Dogale Tombe. The family has been dealing with excessive flooding for several years. In 2020, their house collapsed from the rising water and they built another makeshift shelter to live in. “This place was the garden but now it is all under water,” Juwan says. “We can’t move to the other side because we can’t afford the life on the other side, we don’t have money to go.”
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

Almost every person has been displaced and is seeking shelter at former schools or warehouses, or huddling in makeshift tents strung together with plastic sheeting, corrugated metal, and tree branches. As of late October, both the airstrip and the road network were submerged, cutting off vital aid donations of medicine, food, tents, and other essential goods from the United Nations World Food Programme and other international humanitarian organisations.

South Sudanese families in the village of Dhiam Dhiam prepare the day’s catch of fish to be both eaten and dried to be sold elsewhere. According to the United Nations, 27 out of the 78 counties in South Sudan are impacted by the floods, affecting more than 630,000 people. In most of Twic East County in Jonglei State, fish is the only source of food.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Achan Akech, 30, and Rebecca Nyibol, 27, prepare fish porridge at dusk along a narrow strip of dry land in Panyagor, the county headquarters of Twic North County, Jonglei State, where some of the women and their families displaced by the floods have sought refuge.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Aruar Lul, 16, makes bread inside a school building in Panyagor being used as a shelter. The teenager’s family, which includes two siblings, were forced to flee their home in Duk because of ongoing conflict there. They arrived in Panyagor in 2016 and were then displaced by flooding in 2020. Like thousands in South Sudan, Aruar and his family has been affected by both war and climate change.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

The area around Bor—a Dinka word meaning “floods”—is no stranger to water, but multi-year inundations like this haven’t happened in South Sudan in more than six decades. The reasons are various but boil down to a combination of climate change, deforestation in neighbouring Ethiopia, population growth, and poor water management across Africa, experts say. When the rainy season came in 2019, it didn’t arrive during the usual time frame in South Sudan. The downpours came at the beginning of dry season, in November, and in extraordinary quantities, as if “the whole sky came down, especially in Jonglei,” according to Mads Oyes, chief of field operations for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Also, the water didn’t subside during the dry season as it had in the past.

A man rows a canoe through water covering previous roads in Patiou village.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
South Sudanese boys arrange a fishing net in the village of Dhiam Dhiam. Families affected by floods have lost their cattle, livestock, and their crops, leaving fish as their only source of food.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

According to the United Nations, 27 of South Sudan’s 78 counties are impacted by the floods, affecting more than 630,000 people. Most of Twic East County in Jonglei State, for instance, is accessible only by canoes and motorboats with engines small enough to navigate between flooded homes, trees, street signs, and dikes that once demarcated the now uninhabitable land.

The flooding has disrupted everything—from the economy to health and education. The hardest hit segment of the population is the region’s most vulnerable: women and children. From enclave to enclave of high ground—more than 60 total—women and children are suffering from malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea, water-borne diseases, and upper respiratory infections. Many men have left to search for work and have not returned, leaving mothers to fend for themselves and multiple children.

Akuol Atem, 41, poses for a portrait with Kuier Deng, 3, and Riek Deng, 5, two of her five children in a makeshift shelter in Pawel, a village in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. She remembers flooding in the late 1980s, early 1990s were bad. But the flooding happening now is devastating. “I have five children but I am taking care of nine children—my children and the children of my daughter,” Atem says. “I have been two years here. My house was in the flood. I lost everything. Only me and my children remain. Now we have nothing to eat, now we have just fish. If you want to change your diet, you can go to Panyagor to buy something. If you don’t have money, then you can eat water lilies.”
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

While roughly two-thirds of the population has fled to more stable, dry ground, those who remain in the flood zones spend much of their time knee-deep in contaminated water. Families have lost their cattle, livestock, and their crops, leaving fish as their only source of food.

““With COP26, there's a lot of thinking…about what should we all be doing together to avoid that climate change is going to have a huge impact in our future lives. But what is often forgotten is that it's happening already.””

Yves Willemot

The health situation is dire, says Twic East County Commissioner Mabeny Kuot.

“There is an outbreak of malaria, and to find even antimalarial drugs in any of the health facilities is difficult,” he says. “To find even antibiotics in any of the health facilities is difficult. So, there are cases of waterborne diseases. And since the place is flooded … the cases of snake bites are very high.”

Men use buckets to extract water that flowed over a dike following a night of rainfall in Paliau village in Jonglei State, South Sudan. Across vast stretches of this remote region, thousands of people are crammed onto patches of high ground bound by stacks of sandbags. For the third consecutive year, floodwaters have risen to the brink of the sandbag walls, leaving precarious little margin for more rain or excess water flowing down the Nile from neighboring countries experiencing higher levels of rainfall.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Ayen Atem, 36, collects firewood off the dike where she and dozens of other families are staying in what remains of Wernyol, the largest city in Twic East County. Atem has been living with her six children in a narrow segment of dry land in Wernyol and must collect firewood an average of every other day (depending on how much dry wood she can find) in order to cook their daily consumption of fish. Atem’s husband is at a refugee camp in Uganda, leaving her on her own to raise the children, ages two to 19. “During the time when there was no water their life was a bit better,” Atem says. “I was farming sorghum, maiz, okra, and pumpkin. The last time there were floods here, I wasn’t even born. This place was empty. I never worried about floods because there were no floods. My worry was only the fighting, the war.”
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Awak Akech, 48, suffers symptoms from suspected malaria as her one-year-old child, Dew Angok, sits beside her in front of their makeshift home along the dike in Wernyol, in Jonglei State, South Sudan, October 25, 2021. Akech was unable to stand and complained of body aches, joint aches, and a fever. She had been sick for seven days but had no way to get to Panyagor for medical attention.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Achol Deng, 34, holds her malnourished one-year-old son, Aheu Dhieu, in the abandoned warehouse where they sought shelter from the floods along with dozens of other families in Panyagor. Deng, who has eight children, says that her youngest was born healthy but shortly after birth he got sick, with vomiting, diarrhea, fever and loss of appetite, and eventually became malnourished. The family used to receive porridge from the World Food Programme, but food distributions have been halted since May due to the floods.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

The onset of the floods preceded the COVID-19 pandemic by months, causing resources and funds from the international community to grassroots organisations to be cut or diverted. Residents are increasingly desperate, pleading for sandbags, plastic sheeting, medicine, tents, and food. Ambulances have been replaced by canoes or small motorboats. Pregnant women with complications rely on the goodwill of others to get them to the nearest functioning medical facility in Panyagor or Bor.

Various organisations are accepting donations to help flood victims in South Sudan. For more information, visit Community in Need Aid (CINA) or the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Funds sent to UNICEF should be earmarked for South Sudan.

As world leaders gather in Scotland for the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, Yves Willemot, chief of communication for UNICEF in South Sudan,  stressed the need for an urgent response to the effects of climate change that are already destroying lands and lives.

Schoolchildren walk between buildings at the Panyagor Primary School, which is surrounded by water. Students attending the school come from Panyagor and surrounding villages that have been flooded. The school is now being used for all grade levels.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Aguar Akoy, 17, studies biology and English before class at the Panyagor Primary School, which is surrounded by water. The family moved to Panyagor from Parkuor last year after floods destroyed their home. Many of the schools in the region, which are still dry inside, are being used as shelters at night.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Martha Bor, 27, with her eight-month-old child, Akuot Chol, in the small dry section of Dhiam Dhiam fishing village, in Jonglei State. Boris a community outreach worker and nutrition nurse/ specialist working with malnourished children in Dhiam Dhiam through the organization Tear Fund, sponsored by UNICEF. She helps identify malnourished children, administers therapeutic food to those in need, and refers severely malnourished children to hospitals for additional treatment that cannot be provided in Dhiam Dhiam.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

“With COP26, there's a lot of thinking…about what should we all be doing together to avoid that climate change is going to have a huge impact in our future lives,” he says. “But what is often forgotten is that it's happening already.

“We need to make sure that response is put in place for those countries that today are paying the high price of the climate change consequences,” Willemot says. “It is shocking that ...South Sudanese are paying the price for something that they are very much the very last ones to be responsible for.”

Children pull up to the makeshift dike in the village of Pawel.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

National Geographic Explorer and photographer Lynsey Addario is the author of the memoir It’s What I Do.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Lynsey Addario’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.

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