“Of course I’m worried about my kids,” she said. “That’s why we keep moving.”
Devastated by years of conflict, there has hardly been enough time of peace in the world’s newest nation to begin building. Only 200 kilometers of its roads are paved. Now South Sudan is facing biblical floods, which began as early as June and were exacerbated by the climate crisis, which the country did not contribute much to creating.
For years, South Sudan has experienced more wet seasons than usual, while its dry seasons are getting even drier. The rainy season is over, but the water that has accumulated over months has not yet retreated.
South Sudan is one of many places in the world struggling with this dual problem of drought followed by extreme rainfall, which together create the best conditions for devastating floods.
Remote cities like Ding Ding are now largely deserted. The traditional thatched roofs of many homes here peak above the waterline, their walls still under water.
Some people looking for food here have resorted to eating the lilies that have begun to sprout on the surface of the river water as a whole new ecosystem begins to form in this radically changed landscape.
It is a gloomy picture for a country that is only 10 years old. After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, just two and a half years later, South Sudan fell into a brutal civil war that only ended last year. Lethal, inter-municipal violence continues to be common as people struggle for increasingly scarce grazing land.
Competing for resources
South Sudan is no stranger to seasonal floods, but Unity State officials say they have not seen anything on this scale since the early 1960s. Ninety percent of the state’s land has been affected by the floods, and the next rainy season is only five months away. Officials at Bentiu say they are worried the situation will only get worse.
“We are told that the water behind me will not go now, it will not retreat or dry up. It’s going to take a while because it’s deep water,” said Minister Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, State Minister for land, housing and public supplies.
Scientists are now able to calculate how much the climate crisis may have played a role in most extreme weather events. But in this part of the world, it is notoriously difficult to measure with certainty because it has such large variations in its natural climate to begin with.
The world is already 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was before it began to industrialize, and Africa overall sees higher temperature rises than the global average.
For those dealing with this problem in South Sudan, the climate crisis is clear here already and gives the rest of the world an insight into what complications it can cause.
“We are feeling climate change. We are feeling it,” said John Payai Manyok, the country’s deputy director of climate change.
“We are feeling drought, we are feeling floods. And this is becoming a crisis. It is leading to food insecurity, it is leading to more conflict in the area because people are competing for the few resources available.”
While droughts and floods can seem like polar opposites, they have more of a relationship than is obvious.
“After a long period of drought, the soil can harden, can be very dry, and you will therefore have more (rainwater) runoff, and this will exacerbate the risk of flooding,” said Caroline Wainwright, a climate researcher at the University of Reading, who is studying the East African region.
“And all of this potentially also helps with bigger storms and more intense rainfall. It’s something we can expect to see more of – periods of dehydration and these really intense storms.”
The question now is not only how to clean up the mess, but how to adapt to better withstand these extreme weather disasters.
While its neighbors continue to build dams and more permanent dikes, South Sudan has failed to adapt and remains at the mercy of its rivers, Manyok said. Human activity also worsens the health of rivers and their ability to hold water in during heavy rainfall.
Manyok said the country is in desperate need of adaptation.
“We need to introduce technologies that are water-friendly and efficient, and along the Nile we need to build dams and remove the sludge,” Manyok said.
Sludge is usually caused by sediment or soil erosion and can build up in rivers and block the natural flow of water, exacerbating floods.
A school destroyed
Shards of Rubkona, a market town next to the United States capital Bentiu, have been abandoned. The markets and houses here sit ghostly, submerged under water, continuing to rise at a slow, twisted pace.
Nearby, Pakistani engineers from the UN mission use the few heavy machinery available to repair and reinforce a hastily constructed mud dam that has kept the airport and a camp of nearly 120,000 displaced people on dry land. UN officials say a breach here would be catastrophic.
The struggle is constant as the water continues to climb up the wall of the dike every day. It seeps across the red mud road towards the runway and the gates of the camp.
The vast majority of IDPs arrived years ago after fleeing South Sudan’s brutal civil war. They now share space and increasingly limited resources with the newcomers.
A Médecins Sans Frontières hospital inside the camp is overcapacity. Staff are treating a massive increase in the number of malnourished babies since the flood began.
“We had 130 cases in the last month. Previously, we could have 30-40 in a month,” said CEO Kie John Kuol.
Back in Ding Ding, the city’s school, which was rebuilt in 2017 after it burned down during the Civil War, is also partially submerged in the water – progress has once again been suspended. According to UNICEF, the floods have destroyed, closed or blocked access to more than 500 schools in South Sudan.
While teacher Kuol Gany walks around his classroom, the water reaches his knees. Behind him is a blackboard scribbled with equations and English-language definitions of words.
“Relief is the help given to people during a disaster,” reads a definition.
Gany had only a few years of training in this new building before the floods hit. He’s worried he’ll have to leave it, and even his city, forever.
“It’s still rising, the water,” he said. “There are diseases and there are snake bites. And we drink this water too.”
James Ling, who lives in Ding Ding, said he returned shortly to see what he could save from his home through eight years. He waded through the water to reach his home, but found nothing left except his children’s drawings on the walls.
“Since the conflict broke out, we have never had a rest,” he said. “We have been constantly running, displaced. Our children have had no relief from the dangers.”