South Sudan

South Sudan: As the waters rise, so does hunger

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By: Susan Martinez

The people of Old Fangak, South Sudan, fight every day to keep two things at bay: flood waters and hunger.

Starting in July 2020, unusually heavy rains caused the waters of the White Nile to rise. All of the crops were damaged, leaving families with little to eat.

Not everyone in Old Fangak has a fishing net that allows them to profit from the fish in the waters. Father and son Peter and Samuel are among the lucky few, but with the fishing net comes responsibility and sacrifice. Peter and Samuel stay behind in the flooded waters to fish every day to feed the children, while the rest of their family has taken refuge in one of the few remaining dry highlands.

Across tall grasses growing amid chest-deep water floats a small raft made of dried grass. Peter and Samuel sit on top.

"We decided to stay here because we know that everywhere it is flooded like this. We made a small island with the grass so we can sleep here,” says Samuel.

"When we realized the floods were too high, we decided not to keep the children here because when we go fishing, some could drown while playing,” Peter explains. “We told our family that we would stay here fishing to feed them."

Before the floods, the family farmed the land together. But the night the water destroyed the last dike protecting their home, submerging it, Samuel and Peter made their decision to stay behind, a moment father and son remember with sadness.

"My worst memory is when my children went away in a plastic raft because we couldn't get a canoe. I knew that the plastic wasn't safe, and that it could collapse. I was afraid my children would fall and drown,” recalls Samuel. “But, when we realized that the water was coming inside the house with force, we shaped the plastic into a floating raft and put the children inside to take them away to a highland."

Day after day goes by, and Peter and Samuel continue to fish, trying as hard they can to capture enough feed to their family and more to sell to buy other kinds of food. They have no other option – any other means of sustenance were swept away by the floods.

"All the goats and cows are dead. All the sorghum is submerged. The crops that we cultivated are underwater. All of it,” says Samuel. “It is the water that killed the goats and cows. They grazed in the water, and caught a disease and died."

Families in Old Fangak were depending on their crops to have something to eat as this year began. But all of it is gone – and the rains have started once more, arriving earlier than usual. Hunger is a constant, for everyone. Parents sacrifice whatever they have to feed their children.

"Sometimes I can spend up to one month without seeing my grandchildren. What we can fish, we send to them, but I don't get to see them,” says Peter. “I miss my grandchildren, but I'm not able to walk through the flood water, my legs are weak and the canoe is only rented for the days to sell and deliver fish to the children."

The canoe – a hollowed-out fallen tree - can't fit Samuel, Peter, and the fish they caught. Samuel is the strongest, so usually goes on his own to the highland to give the fish to their family and to sell whatever can be spared, while Peter remains behind on the grass island.

"When we catch some, I'm the one who delivers the fish to the children, my father can't go because of his legs. I take the fish to the highland and either sell it and buy flour so that my family can eat chapati [a flatbread], or if I can't sell the fish they just eat it,” says Samuel.

Although the water provides fish, it isn't enough to fill empty bellies or to maintain a balanced diet. Without other foods, it is hard to suppress hunger. Yet, the two fisherman can’t even count on catching each day.

"Now, the fish are too small and they are moving with the water’s current. As the water keeps rising, the fish move further away,” explains Samuel. “The water is still rising and it could even go above our island."

Peter and Samuel agree that a flood like this is unheard of. Many families like theirs are struggling to cope with the damage caused by the floods and the resulting hunger continues to this day, more than six months since the flooding began. The weather is not showing patterns the locals recognized – a concern for many because they don't know when the land will be clear to cultivate again.

"The flood has already reached to this high level and yet the water is still coming and coming although the rain has stopped. This flood could be the worst I've seen in my life. People will die of hunger,” says Peter.

Action Against Hunger’s Response

In Old Fangak and the surrounding areas, Action Against Hunger prevents and treats malnutrition, provides health care, and improves access to clean water, safe sanitation, and good hygiene. To help families displaced by the floods, we have launched an emergency response to provide food assistance, fishing kits, and seeds with support from the European Union.