South Sudan

Starving in South Sudan’s Swamps: Families Eating Water Lilies to Survive

News and Press Release
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The humanitarian situation in South Sudan has deteriorated sharply since violence broke out on 15 December 2013. More than 1.3 million people have been displaced from their homes. Farmers have been unable to plant or harvest their crops due to insecurity. A severe food shortage threatens the lives of tens of thousands of people. In Juba, Renk, Maban, and several places in Panyijar County, Swiss-based NGO Medair is responding with urgent relief for the most vulnerable, whose most dire need is food.

Initial assessments have shown shocking acute malnutrition rates of 31 percent in Panyijar County, a swampy area where more than 30,000 people fled to escape the violence, doubling the population. “The swamps create a very tangible barrier from the insecurity that exists on the other side,” said Medair’s Dr. Trina Helderman. “Sadly, this safe haven severely lacks food. Food was already insufficient for the local population due to floods last year, but now with almost double the population, food is scarce to non-existent. Families are surviving on leaves and water lilies. ”

In Panyijar, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) asked Medair to work alongside them and provide life-saving treatment for children with moderate acute malnutrition and for the most severely malnourished children and pregnant/lactating women. “Seeing all of the malnourished children here and knowing that there is such a shortage of food is heartbreaking,” says Medair’s Heidi Giesbrecht. “However, it is encouraging to know that what Medair is doing here can quickly make a real difference.”

"People have almost exhausted the water lilies that they eat,” said Medair’s Eunice Kavoi. “They have to go very far to get them now, which is also not safe.” Indeed, the swamps are full of dangers: murky water that reaches neck-high depths, deadly predators such as crocodiles and snakes. Yet families who live hours away are braving the journey to reach Medair’s feeding programme for the possibility of receiving life-saving care and food.

“We are from Pomalual, which is a four- hour walk, but there's no other clinic nearby,” said young mother Martha Kong. “I had to walk through the swamp, which is very dangerous, but where else could I go? If I had stayed home, I know my child would have died from hunger.”

Meanwhile, malnutrition cases have almost tripled since February in a camp of 40,000 Sudanese refugees in Maban, according to Medair health workers. “Children wait outside our nutrition centres to collect used wrappers from the nutrition supplement we distribute, so that they can lick the inside of them,” said Dr. Lois Fergusson, Medair Health Manager.

Now that the rainy season is starting, which runs from May to October, supply routes already hampered by insecurity will be cut off by flooding, while wet conditions bring an increased risk of diseases that can be lethal in combination with malnutrition.

"We are working night and day," says Peter Manyang, a relief worker who helps run the centre in Panyijar where the most severe cases are treated. "Almost everyone is starving in Ganyliel villlage, big and small,” says Eunice. “The majority of people fled their homes without blankets, without anything, when their villages were torched. When we first went in, there were hardly any signs of life.”

Despite the scale and severity of the crisis, there is still hope. If media agencies can raise enough awareness and relief agencies can raise enough support, we know that food provisions and appropriate treatment will make an immediate life-saving difference for weakened families. “When the World Food Programme food drops started and Medair’s nutrition centre opened, you could start to see some hope,” says Eunice. “Children started playing again at the airstrip, we could hear laughing. Signs of life started to come back.”