South Sudanese Struggle to Survive Climate Change Effects | Opinion

Gunshots past midnight startle Nyaloka Puok wide awake in Old Fangak, South Sudan. Confused, she wonders if fighting is breaking out in her village of Paguir but fear grips her heart as she remembers her community had agreed to use gunfire as a warning: water is coming.

The 37-year-old single mother of four rolls off the cot onto the ground and scrambles out of her hut. Standing on her homestead, she watches gushing floodwaters swallow up her farm—her lifeline. The dyke has burst again.

"This time I could see the water rising, with my own eyes," Puok told me, recalling the year when massive floods came to stay, washing away her precious crops and forcing her and her children to live on wild fruit and water lily bulbs, food foraged to supplement diets, but not sufficient to replace them.

Two years later, the floodwaters have not receded, making cultivation impossible. "Under this water is my land," said Puok while pointing to where her crops of sorghum once stood. "Hunger has been with us for two years. My children and I always sleep hungry."

Harvests lost in the past three years since massive floods swept across South Sudan—affecting 49 counties in eight states—would have fed local populations for up to eight months of the year, but all the crops were destroyed. Initial studies from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) suggest about 65,000 hectares of cultivated land have been damaged due to floods, while 800,000 livestock have died. The World Food Programme (WFP) forecasts a rise in food insecurity this year as families who are subsistence farmers—like Puok—have no way of sustaining themselves.

Puok in front of her inundated land
Nyaloka Puok in front of her inundated plot of land in Paguir. Photo Courtesy of Marwa Awad

Much of South Sudan is now under water. Experts say it is unclear when the water in the flood zones is likely to recede or whether it can evaporate fast enough before the rain season begins this April, meaning more danger may be ahead for the country.

Jonglei and Unity states are the worst affected, with floodwaters flowing for miles on end, turning entire regions into a kind of water world with no dry land in sight. We sailed for two hours on what used to be a roadway, now completely under water. Arriving on the edge of Paguir, we then waded through waist-high murky floodwaters to reach Puok's homestead.

Aerial view of an entire village
Aerial view of an entire village under water in the Fangak region of Jonglei state. Despite the major aid effort in South Sudan, humanitarian needs continue to outpace available resources. Conflict, displacement, hunger and more recently climate change have driven millions into extreme poverty. For many, this never-ending cycle is bleak. But international aid is not only providing relief, it is helping some of the most affected build a better life. Organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) support climate resilience by helping communities build and repair broken dykes to prevent the flooding of roads and settlements. Photo Courtesy of Marwa Awad

Many people fled Paguir to dryer grounds, including well-off families who left Jonglei altogether to settle in Juba and even Khartoum, according to Puok and other locals. The mass exodus has meant that fewer well-to-do families on whose goodwill locals have depended remain in their places of origin.

But Puok refuses to leave, despite feeling that her life is wasting away. There is one thing that she is desperately trying to protect: her mango tree.

"I planted this tree many years ago," she said. "It survived these floods and the danger we have experienced," said Puok. "It is my miracle tree."

Puok is pictured with her children
Nyaloka Puok is pictured with her children. Photo Courtesy of Marwa Awad

Many trees in South Sudan's flooded regions have died, the result of consecutive inundations that have kept forest floors waterlogged and boggy three years in a row.

Searching for Noah's Ark

Puok's story is one of millions in South Sudan, home to the largest wetlands in Africa. The shape of those wetlands is changing dramatically. The most recent estimates of the impact of floods based on satellite images taken in January 2022 show that the areas currently affected by flooding exceed three times the usual average recorded in the same period between 2002 and 2019.

This change in topography is leading to less and less dry arable land while more and more people resettle to dryer locations where other communities already live.

Roughly the size of Texas, South Sudan is a land locked country of only 12 million people, most of whom live in settlements flanked by a body water on one side—such as a riverbank or swamp—and a dirt road on the other. Tensions arising from limited access to resources often lead to conflict as internally displaced South Sudanese including rival pastoral groups move in and out of communities, vying over arable land and more habitable grounds.

South Sudan Satellite Image
The wetlands in South Sudan have expanded dramatically since 2019 until January 2022 due to unprecedented flooding in the last three years. Satellite data shows considerably more extensive flooded areas in 2021 compared to 2020 and 2019, especially in Unity state, Lakes and the western parts of Jonglei state. When placed consecutively, these images reveal the expansion of the wetlands in white (color). Exceptionally in 2019-20 and 2020-21, many areas turned into wetland remained so throughout the dry season, preventing return of populations and planting activities. Going forward, agriculture will be impossible in those areas, dry season pastures will be unusable while livestock disease transmission is likely to increase, preventing seasonal livestock movement and leading to population displacement and chronic hunger.

Back in Paguir, Puok built a dyke out of stacked mud to keep the water encroaching on her homestead at bay. But she lies awake at night listening intently in case there is a breach—the porous material makes an unreliable barrier.

"The water keeps slowly creeping closer, so it is hard to stop monitoring," she said. If her dyke bursts, the water could flow into the hut and drown her and her children in their sleep, she fears.

"We are tired and suffering. This water is too much," she pleads. "We tried our best, but the water is defeating us. These floods came two years ago and since then we have been living in water."

South Sudan is among the most rapidly warming locations on Earth, with temperatures increasing as much as 0.53 degrees Celsius per decade—two and a half times greater than the global average. With nearly 87 percent of the South Sudanese population depending on agriculture, livestock and forestry for survival, climate change threatens the very existence of the people's way of life and their ability to build their resilience.

While the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021 concluded with the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact, in South Sudan and other developing nations besieged by the devastating impact of global warming, climate change is moving faster than the finances globally allotted to deal with it.

It is no longer enough for advanced nations to focus on mitigating climate crises through curbing fossil fuels emissions and transforming food systems. Without the ability to adapt to their new climactic stresses, Puok and countless others already living on the frontlines of the climate crisis will have no choice but to migrate to where they can survive.

Marooned on her small woman-made island, Puok wades through waist-high murky floodwaters to reach her mango tree. Hungry cows grazing the floodwaters for food try to eat the tree leaves, only to be shooed away by Puok's splashing hands. She stands guard over her last remaining possession.

Marwa Awad is an aid worker with the World Food Programme in South Sudan. She previously covered humanitarian emergencies in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen. Prior to that, she was a news reporter in Egypt with Reuters, The Guardian and Al Arabiya.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.