UNMISS, humanitarian partners and government authorities mount extraordinary emergency response to catastrophic floods in Unity state
“The current flooding across Unity state has had a devastating impact on people’s lives,” says Hiroko Hirahara, Head of the United Nation Mission in South Sudan’s (UNMISS) Field Office in Bentiu.
“Homes have been destroyed, crop cycles and harvests ruined, and displaced civilians are desperately seeking higher ground to shelter in. It is an emergency like no other we have faced but we are structuring a coordinated response to this crisis.”
Ongoing floods in South Sudan are estimated to be the worst in 60 years. Unity state has been among the worst affected regions not least due to the confluence of the White Nile, its tributaries and other major rivers here.
Attempting to reduce the catastrophic consequences of rising water levels, UNMISS, humanitarian partners and the state government have set up an Flood Emergency Response Technical Group, a nexus that works 24/7 to monitor the situation and provide early warnings so that on-ground interventions can take every eventuality into account while building temporary defense structures against the cascading waters and leaching mud.
“We have been laboring hand-in-hand with the UN, struggling to protect Bentiu and Rubkona from being submerged,” reveals state governor, Joseph Montyuil. “We are moving around day and night with peacekeepers, building dykes and trying somehow to stem this unforgiving tide.”
Constructing dykes isn’t the only activity keeping the Technical Group busy. UNMISS peacekeepers are also patrolling these dykes continuously to report on any possible breakage or leaks.
Humanitarian partners are equally involved in this extraordinary response.
“We have contributed excavators, water pumps, fuel and other equipment. More importantly, thousands of affected civilians have received substantial food, water, sanitation and hygiene assistance from the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF and the UN Refugee Agency,” says Rugar Kahwa, Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Bentiu.
“Other contributors include the International Rescue Committee, the Danish Refugee Council and Welthungerhilfe,” he adds.
Despite this unparalleled solidarity among actors on the ground, the situation is dire. Equipment is in short supply and human resources are stretched beyond imagination. Without additional resources, the Technical Group is fearful of losing critical infrastructure such as the Rubkona airstrip and the road connecting Bentiu to the Unity Oil Field, 23 kilometers of which is already under water.
“This road is a lifeline for our state. We receive commodities from our northern neighbor, Sudan, as well as humanitarian aid,” avers Governor Monytuil. “Our people, our citizens will not be able to survive without it.”
These enormous challenges were recently compounded by a major breach in one of the dykes in Rubkona, leaving around half the population homeless.
UNMISS engineers from Pakistan are leading the charge in terms of building and maintaining flood protection measures. But they aren’t alone. “Our colleagues from Ghana and Mongolia are supplementing Pakistani engineers’ efforts, strengthening dykes and blocking leaks with sandbags,” says Colonel Muhammad Kashif Naeem, the Deputy Sector Commander for the UN Peacekeeping mission.
Despite every hardship, lives must be saved, livelihoods sustained, and health and environmental hazards mitigated.
“History will be unforgiving if we do not put our hearts and souls into dealing with this harrowing situation,” states Governor Monytuil, urging oil companies in Unity Oil Field to meet their corporate social responsibilities during these challenging times. “We want you to be part of our efforts to save lives. The environmental and health hazards that will occur should oil fields be flooded will be unprecedented and taint the lives of South Sudanese citizens for the foreseeable future,” he cautions.
“The situation is overwhelming,” adds Ms. Hirahara. “Our consolidated efforts are the only light at the end of what seems to be a very dark tunnel for citizens of Unity state, and everybody must do their part if we are to rise above this crisis.”