Drowning On Scorched Earth - South Sudan
The world’s youngest nation caught between historic floods and drought
I’m staring at a massive deadline and writing this with 4 hours of sleep, which is why this issue is late. Apologies!
I also have to make a correction. In last week’s issue, I wrote that the organic substitute being used in Myanmar “could boost farmers’ income on average by $0.50/acre each harvest”. That was wrong. It should be “$50/acre each harvest”! I’m very happy to make this correction.
A month ago, I wrote about the sheer number of weather-related disasters that are hitting us, with my birthplace Myanmar and my adopted country Italy both battered by floods and many parts of the world, from Canada and Spain to Chile and Thailand, fighting extreme heat, wildfires and drought.
Well, here is a follow up, about a country that is battling both record-breaking floods and drought: South Sudan, a landlocked nation of 11 million people in northeastern Africa.
It is wedged between Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic and of course, Sudan, which it used to be a part of until declaring independence on July 9, 2011.
The Horn of Africa, a region that encompasses Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, has been suffering five consecutive failed rainy seasons. This has left millions of people without food to eat or grow. Over 1.7 million have been internally displaced in Ethiopia and Somalia, according to the UN refugee agency.
The ongoing drought has also affected neighbouring countries to the west like South Sudan, said Nelson Owange, programs director with international aid agency MercyCorps. Nelson is based in Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
“We have been fighting drought for a long period. We are seeing the cycles of drought becoming more frequent - previously it was after 8 years, then 4 years, then 2 years. But now, for the last five consecutive seasons, there has been drought,” he told me over a phone call.
The country has been battling floods since in 2019 too, when the Nile began to swell to unprecedented levels. This happened during the dry season and it was much more severe than previous years.
Seasonal flooding is typical in South Sudan, which has exposed floodplains and a location on the River Nile Basin, but this was out of the ordinary. In a really good piece published last year, the International Crisis Group said that:
“Floods in 2020 were so severe the water did not fully recede in the intervening dry seasons. The waterlogged soil worsened the 2021 floods and set the stage for rapid inundation during the rainy season.”
This continued in 2022, when flooding was even more widespread than in the previous years.
“Over a two-year period, together with the rains during the rainy season, eight out of 10 states in South Sudan were all flooded. Now we are at the peak of the dry season, but Unity State is still 70% covered with water,” Nelson told me.
“It's difficult to explain to someone who is not seeing this… but we are talking about 70% of the state covered with water including houses. That is making that environment an island.”
When he recently visited Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, pastoralists told him the last time they witnessed this kind of flooding was 40 years ago.
“They said… they all moved towards the north, which is currently Sudan. Then, South Sudan and Sudan were just one country. They said it took around five to six years before the water receded. But they said the scale this time is bigger, the amount of water is larger, and the few high places they were able to move to (before) are flooded.”
“So on one hand, you have people displaced as a result of really large-scale flooding. On the other, you have people who are displaced as a result of drought. At the same time, in the same country.”
The Wrong Kind of Reinforcement
The majority of South Sudanese are pastoralists, with about 70% of land dedicated to herding and only 30% for crop agriculture and cultivation, so when the floods hit the northern states, livestock moved south, Nelson said.
But in places suffering from drought, there is no pasture, so the livestock moved into agricultural land in Western Equatoria.
“The livestock ravaged those lands, and farmers there cannot prepare for the next planting season. At the same time, livestock deaths from drought and floods are just enormous.”
All this has left 63% of South Sudan’s population - nearly two in three people - on the verge of hunger, according to the 2023 Global Report on Food Crises.
The whole country is food insecure, Nelson told me.
“The Humanitarian Country Team said 7.6 million of the population can only live if they get food distribution… At the same time, there is no production (of food) which means you are expecting this situation to worsen.”
“Only 25% of the budget for reaching these people has been realized in 2023. So we’re staring at a likely humanitarian catastrophe in the eyes.”
Floods have also made delivering humanitarian assistance extremely costly and challenging, he added.
“All that road infrastructure was swept away. What that means for the humanitarian responses is that even transporting humanitarian supplies has to be done by flight… The cost of transport itself is higher than the cost of the goods.”
The disasters have also heighten existing tensions and conflicts between pastoralists and farmers, in a country that is still recovering from a brutal civil war that began in 2013. A fragile peace deal was struck in 2018, but clashes continue.
Early this year, after analysing rainfall over many months in the most affected areas in the Horn of Africa, World Weather Attribution said human-induced climate change “has made events like the current drought much stronger and more likely; a conservative estimate is that such droughts have become about 100 times more likely.”
The International Crisis Group summarised the situation:
“South Sudan exemplifies the compounding, climate-driven forms of instability and violence that the rest of the Horn and indeed much of the continent could face. Wealthy countries could help defuse some of these risks by meeting their commitments to assist Africa in adapting to climate change. But many of these commitments go unfulfilled, leaving governments and local communities without the means to meet and mitigate this threat.”
Not Just South Sudan
South Sudan may be an extreme case stuck in a vicious cycle of conflict, climate, and hunger, but it is by no means an isolated one.
I found the above thread, linking weather disasters and the rise in food prices, fascinating.
Salma Kadry, a climate, peace and security specialist at the CGIAR, the world’s largest network of agricultural research centres, also stressed the linkages between conflict and climate in a speech at the UN Security Council on Jun 13 (fast forward to around 51:20).
She pleaded world leaders to address the root causes of conflict and political instability, which include climate change and water scarcity in the Arab region.
Living in an vast, populous city like Cairo, extreme weather events like heavy downpours, sandstorms, heatwaves, and general fluctuation in daily temperatures are “the most strongly felt climate impact”, she told me via e-mail.
“The intensification of these events puts people in a much-burdened position, limits their resilience capacity, and multiplies risks and dangers that they are subject to.”
Salma said her two biggest concerns when it comes to food systems’ impact on climate change are food waste and affordability of food.
“Food waste is simply a waste of all the inputs and resources that were used to produce this food commodity, an accelerator to the climate change crisis due to its significant greenhouse gas footprint and a missed opportunity for alleviating hunger and malnutrition for the ones who lack food access or affordability.”
“The affordability of food in the region is another major concern. The Arab region is one of the most water-scarce in the world (up to 90% of its water resources are used for agriculture), heavily dependent on food imports, and many of its agricultural products are export-oriented, compromising its control over its food sovereignty.”
In her speech, Salma identified political will as the most important - and missing - piece of the puzzle. She elaborated to me what she meant.
“I was referring to having the “will” to think outside of our established systems - be it our economic capitalist system, the multilateral system, or the social system that is geared towards benefitting “a few”.”
“I think “this will” is very weak, so I would scale it at 1 (out of 10), and here I want to recall an idea that was expressed by one of my master’s professors: our proposed solution is based on the exact same logic, thinking, and tools that have caused this problem in the first place.”
“So, the solution shouldn’t be solely focused on finding a clean energy source to fuel our economies and over-consumption, but it is one that should be anchored in planetary boundaries, human development, and social justice.”
The Bonn Legacy
If you think Salma was being too harsh, well, think again.
The Bonn Climate Change Conference, which ended last week (Jun 15), had very little to show for it. There was much posturing and bickering but no resolution on key issues affecting the development sector or food systems.
Dr Dhanush Dinesh, Founder of Utrecht-based non-profit Clim-Eat, who wrote a Linked In article saying he wasn’t attending the event, told me he “decided to boycott the event this year, as the process has just not been delivering the action needed in food systems or climate more broadly”.
“The outcomes/lack of it is evidence that the process is just not working, and we need to critically rethink the process and hold negotiators accountable.”
"COP28 has to deliver the climate action needed in food systems, anything else is unacceptable. This means ensuring the flow of finance, capacity, technology to make the transformation happen, rather than more talk and endless processes."
The disappointment for food systems advocates are particularly acute when it comes to the Sharm El-Sheik joint work on implementation on agriculture and food security (SSJW).
Yes, in a sector full of mind boggling and unpronounceable acronyms, this one is fast becoming pretty hard to beat. I refer to it as the process-formerly-known-as-Koronivia but if that also draws a blank, here’s a handy back issue I wrote six months ago.
For member states, the lack of progress on SSWJ means “a mere delay of 6 months after which they can start negotiations again” but the cost for vulnerable communities are much higher, said Wiebe Smit, Dhanush’s colleague at Clim-Eat.
“For those individuals standing at the forefront of climate change, this means yet again a lack of action and meaningful support that will have direct negative and possibly devastating effects on their livelihoods.”
Dr Lucy Wallace, Chief of Staff at EIT Food, which is acting as the Secretariat for the newly-formed Food Systems Partnership, also said the disappointing results for SSJW at Bonn, “which traded action and implementation for deferral and delay, only reinforces our certainty that we cannot leave food systems transformation in the hands of negotiators.”
The focus will now fall on COP28 later this year but whether we will do something concrete is anybody’s guess. I wouldn’t bet on it.
Three Good Reads
Charlie Hope-D’Anieri’s piece is about Chris Jones, a water quality researcher in Iowa, whose blog about Big Ag’s role in the state’s water woes got him into trouble. It is informative, inspiring and infuriating in equal measure.
Murky world of global food trading is too important to ignore - Financial Times
Pithy piece by Helen Thomas on the back of the announcement that US-listed Bunge (of the ABCD fame) will wed Glencore-backed competitor Viterra in an $8.2bn deal. She argues there should be more scrutiny of the world’s grain traders.
Solar panels’ land efficiency - Richard Waite
A short but educational thread by a senior searcher at World Resources Institute on why solar makes sense. If you want to see the original discussion on the blue bird platform, click here.