The northern four-fifths of South Sudan are taken up by the Nile floodplain: a flat-as-a-pancake seasonal swamp that’s about the size of Spain. For several months each year, after the heavy rains come, virtually all of it is under water. Then, as the water drains first into the Sudd marshlands and eventually into the Nile itself, the land goes bone-dry for the rest of the year.
Traditionally, the people of the flood plain are semi-nomadic: they roam around in search of pasture in the dry months, then gather into temporary villages on the few ridges and (slightly-)higher ground to avoid the waters during the rainy season.
But what happens when war cuts people off from the higher ground during the rainy season?
Much of the [United Nations Mission in South Sudan] camp in Bentu was flooded in July with the first heavy downpour of the rainy season. Over one thousand makeshift shelters filled with sewage contaminated floodwater. People used cooking pots to scoop up the water, tried to build mud dams across doorways to prevent water entering, but to no avail.
With few possibilities for drainage, current living conditions in the camp are horrifying and an affront to human dignity. Most of the camp is now knee-deep in sewage, thousands of people cannot lay down and therefore sleep standing up with their infants in their arms.
Let that sink in for a second.
It’s not exactly a surprise that the burden of infectious disease in these conditions is extreme. More so is the UN’s total inability to safeguard people even one meter outside the camp’s perimeter fence.
The MSF press release closes on an especially galling note:
Understandably, camp residents are angry and resentful. While not easy, drainage is possible with a determined effort. Existing resources and UNMISS equipment onsite such as excavators and diggers must be made available as a priority for this purpose. Furthermore, there remains unused land in the zone and the immediate allocation of land that is less susceptible to flooding would alleviate some of the current suffering. What’s clear is that the current situation is untenable without improvements. People should be safe from disease as well as safe from violence.