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Climate Conflict Crisis

In the world's newest country, hope has long been replaced by despair. The flush of optimism that arose in the wake of independence for South Sudan in 2011 quickly faded, then evaporated, along with the gush of foreign interest and aid that came in those early and optimistic days.

Today South Sudan is a place where the tangled and connected impact of conflict and climate change are devastating communities in a hurricane of hunger, homelessness and need. The seasonal and predictable flooding of the Nile has become a deadly, extreme and unpredictable occurrence as climate patterns have changed. The last three years have seen the worst floods in living memory. Crops have been devastated and vast numbers of people forced from their homes. More community conflict, more displacement and more starvation are the result.

The latest snapshot from the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) indicates 850,000 have been directly affected by the flooding and 8.3 million people - around three-quarters of the population - need assistance. Millions also face the spectre of famine.

Following this year's flooding, communities desperately cling onto patches of dry land with almost no shelter and little food. Six new IDP camps have sprung up in and around Bentiu in Unity State. At least 50,000 people have so far taken refuge from the floods this year behind the protective mud dykes protecting Bentiu which is already home to some 100,000 displaced people. There is great concern that the dykes could fail.

Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) staff say malnutrition is highest among the cattle-herding communities, with severe malnutrition among under-fives. The organisation is also on high alert for cholera breakouts.

At least half the people in Unity State are nomadic pastoralists whose culture and livelihoods entirely depends on cattle. A former State governor and IDP camp leader says that 70% of the livestock have already been lost, either to the floods, starvation or disease. Many families have lost everything. The long-term implications could be irreversibly devastating for a way of life that has existed for centuries.

Huge cattle herds have been moved south to the equatorial region unseasonably early to escape the floods and flee from increasing numbers of violent raids by competing clans. The cows are eating the crops before they are ready for harvest and this is causing conflict with local communities. The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) is delivering risk education lessons to the herders, teaching them how to recognise explosive items, as they stray close to landmine-contaminated areas.

Many of those on the move, fleeing the flooding, the ongoing insurgency against the government or communal violence arising from displacement, must also deal with the prospect of crossing or settling on land littered with landmines and unexploded munitions.

This deadly contamination is the result of decades of war. International de-mining charity MAG is responding by clearing badly-needed land of the deadly explosive remnants of war to keep people safe and enable safe cultivation. In 2021, MAG teams cleared 1,237,480 square metres across the Equatoria region, benefiting over 26,000 community members and delivered 2,068 explosive risk awareness sessions to 17,510 individuals.

The complexity, intensity and scope of South Sudan's past conflicts is reflected in the scale of the contamination by mines, cluster munitions and unexploded bombs. The Landmine Monitor estimates that over 45 million square metres of land is currently contaminated, although more hazardous areas are reported each month. Five thousand deaths or injuries have been recorded, a likely understatement as many incidents go unreported. MAG Regional Director Deborah Crowe says: 'Devastating climate change is already a reality in South Sudan, adding to the dangerous legacy of landmine contamination and causing untold hardship to hundreds of thousands of people. More help is needed now, to tackle both the immediate emergency and the longer term challenge of clearing landmines to enable the safe movement of people and access to what should be productive land for agriculture.'

In Bentiu, MSF is caring for twice the number of malnourished children in hospital compared to this time last year. These are children that are malnourished and are also sick from malaria or other issues, overwhelming the camp hospital. Preliminary results from a survey in some new makeshift camps indicate 12% of children under five are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

The water levels are still rising even though the rains have stopped. Villages are still flooding as their dykes fail. Families are also still arriving in Bentiu after walking for days pulling makeshift tarpaulin rafts through the flood, filled with their their children and few belongings. There is no sign of the flooding subsiding before the next rain season.

MSF said: 'We are extremely concerned about malnutrition, with severe acute malnutrition levels two times the WHO threshold, and the number of children admitted to our hospital with severe malnutrition doubling since the start of the floods.'

South Sudan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate breakdown, according to the Global Climate Index. Food insecurity, conflict, diminished human rights and financial problems aggravated by Covid-19 have eroded its capacity to cope with recurring extreme weather events such as flooding. The heavy rainfall that caused three consecutive floods will only get worse in South Sudan and the wider region if global temperatures continue to rise, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted.

This is the third straight year of extreme flooding in South Sudan, further impacting many of the 11 million people in the country who are already in dire need of humanitarian assistance.  As a consequence of consecutive years of widespread flooding, seasonal livelihood opportunities, such as planting during the lean season, are no longer an option for people living in flood-affected areas which have remained submerged for over a year and longer.

A regional shortage of aid has led to severe cutbacks in available food, up to two thirds less than before which is not enough to survive on. People are also returning home further south in the country from Uganda in large numbers into conflict zones and minefields.

People are in need of immediate assistance, including medical care, food and safe water and non-food items such as shelter, mosquito nets and cooking pots.  Access for communities to reach healthcare facilities and humanitarian aid and for NGOs to reach remote communities, is a challenge all year round in South Sudan. Now it has become even more difficult for people to access basic life-saving services, as well as for humanitarian organisations to reach them directly with much of the flood-affected areas inaccessible by road.
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