300,000 lives on the line – how UNMISS protects Bentiu residents from climate shocks

unmiss pakistan peace climate change bentiu south sudan peacekeepers united nations climate emergency

In Bentiu, South Sudan, communities are still bearing the brunt of catastrophic floods. However, thanks to an extraordinary response to climate shocks by UNMISS peacekeepers from Pakistan, people have hopes of better days ahead. Photo by Gregorio Cunha/UNMISS

6 Feb 2024

300,000 lives on the line – how UNMISS protects Bentiu residents from climate shocks

Peter Bateman

UNITY STATE - In the midst of 5,400 square kilometres of greyish, brown water and decaying trees, stands an ‘island.’

It’s tiny in comparison to the vast body of water that surrounds it – perhaps a little over three square kilometers – but the important thing is that it’s the last refuge for some 300,000 residents of Bentiu, the capital of Unity state in South Sudan.

The island is not a natural formation: It is a tract of dry ground sheltered by towering mud walls known as dykes and is the only place for communities, who have been caught in some of the heaviest rainfall in 60 years, to live with a semblance of normalcy.  

These dykes, built by engineers from Pakistan serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), were first erected in 2020 when massive overflow from a swelling Nile river crashed through the state and never receded.

Captain Taimoor Ahmad, a Flood Officer with the Pakistani engineering unit in Bentiu, captures the essence of their mission.

"We may not be the ones saving people from bullets, but we are protecting them from floods."

His words underscore the evolving nature of UN Peacekeeping where environmental catastrophes pose as great a threat as armed conflict.

In Bentiu, floods have erased villages, submerged critical infrastructure and has made agriculture - once the primary source of income and food - all but impossible.

This disaster has propelled hundreds of thousands to seek sanctuary in the Bentiu Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, which is safeguarded by the dyke system.

These protective mud structures, however, demand constant surveillance and maintenance. For over three years, Pakistani Blue Helmets have tirelessly worked to preserve them, a task that has become crucial for the survival of both the IDP camp's residents, the UNMISS Bentiu Field Office, and, naturally, for the secure delivery of critical humanitarian assistance.

As the river swelled, so too did the population of Bentiu.

Now with limited alternatives, humanitarian and government services are concentrated within the camp.

This scenario has upped the stakes for peacekeepers to ensure service providers have dry land to help thousands that rely on them each day.

“The IDP camp was initially a refuge for those fleeing conflict, but with the floods, it's become the last haven for many,” reflects Ngakuika Koang, a displaced person who now runs a small tea shop within the camp. “We all hope to return to our homes, but for now, we are grateful for UNMISS's protection.”

The precarious nature of the situation was underscored in October 2022, when a rupture in the western dyke wall threatened calamity. Prompt and cooperative efforts by Ghanaian peacekeepers, community volunteers, and International Organization for Migration personnel—initially armed only with shovels—were pivotal in containing the breach before Pakistani engineers arrived with more robust machinery.

"The IDP camp and the UNMISS base were teetering on the edge of disaster that night. The immediate action taken by our peacekeepers was vital," recalls Jane Kony, currently serving as the Acting Head of the UNMISS Field Office here.

The durability of the dykes, which have withstood challenges for more than a year, now, reflects the Pakistani engineering unit's adaptability and commitment.

"We monitor over 80 kilometers of dykes daily. Over three years, we've accumulated significant knowledge, ensuring the well-being of everyone here," shared Major Saad Sultan, a Pakistani operations officer, during an early morning inspection on the southern dyke.

From the air one can still see the tops of tukuls (local huts) dotted throughout the murky water, relics of lost villages. They serve a stark reminder of the crippling impact climate change can have on vulnerable communities.

This disaster not only robs people of their homes but also brings the risk of deadly health outbreaks and heightened intercommunal tensions due to overcrowding.

Despite the challenges of working in the middle of climate disasters, compounded with food crises, conflict and the outbreak of disease, Captain Ahmad, reflecting on the broader impact of his work, remains committed.

“If I help build just one dyke, I’m indirectly saving hundreds or thousands. That makes all the hard work and sacrifice worth it.”