Communities across flood-beleaguered Unity state continue suffering from climate shocks

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Climate shocks in South Sudan have left communities stranded in floodwaters but UNMISS peacekeepers come up with new approaches to bring them relief and boost confidence. Photo by Gregorio Cunha/UNMISS.

7 Aug 2023

Communities across flood-beleaguered Unity state continue suffering from climate shocks

Peter Bateman

UNITY - Transformed into a watery archipelago by nearly four years of relentless flooding, Unity State stands as a stark testament to the climate crisis.

When the rains first began, thousands scrambled to find dry land.

Today, for communities who managed to stay above water, there are new battles that must be fought.

Recently, Mongolian peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), travelled by boat to Thong, a former town that has now—thanks to incessant rainfall—become a riverine island.

Journeying seven kilometres, crisscrossing through a labyrinth of purple and white waterlilies that conceal the grim reality of submerged villages, Blue Helmets made their way carefully to this isolated settlement of roughly 5,000 people.

Life has changed dramatically for Thong residents. Farming, once their primary means of survival, is now all but impossible.

Gatluek Shackdet, a community member, portrayed the situation vividly: "Thong, once rich with arable land and vibrant community life, is now caught in an idle struggle for survival post-flooding. Travel to Rubkona, previously possible by car or foot, is now only feasible by boat. River work and subsistence on water lilies and fish barely feed our families.”

Given numerous roads have become completely inaccessible, it is difficult for humanitarian services, concentrated in high population density areas like Bentiu and Rubkona, to visit small community clusters such as Thong frequently.

"Reaching markets or aid stations now requires a costly boat ride for communities like those in Thong. We see women crafting small boats, pushing supplies through water, and enduring a challenging seven-kilometre trip,” said Jane Kony, acting head of the UNMISS Field Office in Bentiu.

Since floods began in 2021, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Sergeant Batbileg, a Mongolian peacekeeper who led the mission to Thong, explained how UNMISS has had to adapt.

"The floods are catastrophic, but we understood that we may have to live with them for years to come. Therefore, we changed our approach and devised new ways to reach communities in need,” he stated.  

“Many have been relocated to internally displaced people’s sites, but we can’t forget about those in the floodwaters. Our visit to Thong was to build confidence in the community and ensure they can access the aid and support they need. We want them to know they are not forgotten,” he added.  

Despite all the hardships they have undergone, residents of Thong remain hopeful.

“I'm glad to see peacekeepers. They don’t merely protect us from conflict but with all they have done for flood-ravaged community members, they have become part of our social fabric; I pray they will remember Thong and continue their support," explained Mr. Shackdet.

Thong, and other isolated settlements on the brink of submersion face an uncertain future but UNMISS remains committed to ensuring every South Sudanese, no matter where they are, can access life-saving support.

“We do not go to these places because it is easy, we go because it is our mandate to protect civilians wherever they are, regardless of how difficult to reach they may be,” explained Ms. Kony.