The town of Akobo should be bustling with energy.
Thousands of families who fled their homes when civil war erupted in South Sudan have finally begun returning to their homes in the wake of a new peace deal signed by the country’s leaders last year.
Just a few months ago, the markets were thriving. People were rebuilding their homes and planting crops in the hope of a bumper harvest at the end of the rainy season.
But heavier than expected rains have created yet another setback for the families who had taken the risk of returning. Devastating floods have submerged or destroyed their tukuls (huts), displacing families yet again. Basic infrastructure has also been damaged, including boreholes now contaminated with tainted water.
“When we were displaced by the flooding, we felt sad because we had to leave everything behind,” says Akobo returnee Nadak Pal. “We need shelter. We need food. Now we are not getting those things because we had to leave our homes. I’m sleeping outside which is not good.”
Humanitarians are providing emergency relief across the region, including food, access to clean water, shelter and medicine, to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. That life-saving support is critical to easing the immediate crisis, but the damage caused by the downpours will, over the longer-term, ultimately increase the hardship and suffering of Akobo residents.
“This area here is low-lying and the water is coming down from Ethiopia as well. It’s a real tragedy,” says the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, David Shearer.
He visited the area to see first-hand the damage that has been caused and the impact of the humanitarian response. The World Food Programme, through Oxfam, is already delivering food to people in desperate need. Donors have also been generous, but as always, more support is needed to deal with the crisis.
“Obviously, the scale of need is perhaps bigger than anyone thought. And the real worry, to be honest, is further down the track in a few months’ time,” says David Shearer. “Yes, we can supply emergency support now, but these people are going to rely, and have been relying for years and years, on harvests. Those harvests are likely to be badly affected, so there is going to be less food that they are going to grow themselves. They may become more dependent on food coming in from outside.”
Peacekeepers working in the area have also been affected. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan established a new base in Akobo in February 2018 to help protect civilians and facilitate the safe delivery of humanitarian aid. The facilities, the first to be located in opposition-held territory since the civil war, also suffered severe damage with tents and equipment left resting in boggy mud in the aftermath of the flooding.
Despite the challenges, the peacekeepers and the local community remain committed to working together to build reconciliation and peace.
“Peace is good for the community,” says Nadak Pal. “When you talk about peace, you can look forward to so many things – everything you want. You can get food from your garden. You can look forward in life. Peace is good.”
Her hope, along with fellow Akobo residents, is that the international community will respond to their suffering and commit fresh funding to the flood relief effort as well as maintain political pressure on South Sudan’s leaders to deliver the durable peace they have promised for so long.