The storm came with such speed and ferocity that no one was prepared, twenty year-old Thot told me the following morning, as families around us struggled to find places out of the water and mud to dry their mattresses and clothing, “I was sitting with my five brothers and sisters in the tent, playing a game, and then . . . boom, the rains came down so hard it was like the sky was angry with the people below,” he said. “The floor quickly filled with water and all of our clothes, food, supplies, everything was soaked. The little ones were scared, but what could we do? We just sat there, wet, until the rain passed.”
I had gone to visit one of the camps in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where 27,000 people have taken refuge from the recent violence in the country, so I could see the impact of the storm. The devastation wrought by just two hours of rain was shocking.
The ground of the Protection of Civilians site at the UN peacekeeping base in Tomping, Juba, had been transformed into a muddy soup of debris, everyone having to tread carefully so as not to slip and fall in the muck. Everywhere I looked, adults and children were trying to salvage whatever possessions they could. Turning off the wide muddy track that forms the main road of the camp, I ventured into the warren of tiny paths that run between the rows of tents and shelters. I soon found myself in mud up to my ankles, pools of filthy water in many places at least a foot deep.
A steady procession of women and children passed me, sloshing through the water in search of higher ground to dry their clothes and bedding in the hot sun. Everyone, me now included, was filthy.
It was in the warren of flooded pathways that I met Thot, who took me to see what had happened at his shelter. Much of the makeshift tarpaulin roof had collapsed from the sheer force of the rain and the earth floor was still deep underwater. “Look at this,” he said, “We cannot stay here anymore so we have taken everything we have left and gone to sit by the camp’s main road. We have nowhere else to go, nowhere to sleep.”
“Our homes are outside the camp, here in Juba,” a man named Gar told me. He was working with friends to pile mud around plastic sheeting in the hope of making his shelter more sturdy, “but who can protect us if we go back?”
There are now more than 705,000 people, including 377,000 children, who have been internally displaced by violent conflict in South Sudan since the political crisis erupted on 15 December last year. Many of these people have taken refuge on low-lying land which is prone to flooding during the April to October rainy season.
Unable to return to their homes because they do not feel safe, the displaced living in the Tomping camp – and hundreds of thousands more across South Sudan – are facing disaster. “If one night of rain can do this,” a community elder named Paul asked me as he gestured at the flooding around us, echoing what everyone else was surely thinking, “What will happen when the rains come every day?”
If urgent steps are not taken to ensure that displaced children and families are prepared to withstand the rainy season, we will soon find out.
As the 7 March rainstorm and damage to the Tomping IDP site so aptly demonstrate, inadequate preparations for the looming rainy season could cause catastrophic consequences for South Sudan’s displaced.
“With the rains mere weeks away, we are left with a very small window of time in which to act,” said Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF Representative a.i. for South Sudan. “Latrines in flood-prone IDP communities must be moved to higher ground to prevent contamination; humanitarian supplies, essential medicines and children’s nutritional supplements must be shipped and in situ before roads become impassable; and children must urgently be vaccinated against opportunistic diseases like cholera which thrive under such conditions. Acting now will save children’s lives in the future.”
UNICEF and its partners are working to help vulnerable children and families prepare for the rainy season. Ongoing activities include the pre-positioning of supplies such as ready-to-use therapeutic food for the treatment of malnutrition, launching cholera and measles vaccination campaigns, and the establishment of key programmes in locations likely to become inaccessible during the rains.
Yet more must be done – and faster – to keep displaced children healthy and safe. UNICEF in South Sudan has appealed for US$ 75 million in support of its emergency humanitarian response over the first six months of this year. The appeal remains 80 per cent unfunded.