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South Sudan rainy season

Jesko Johannsen / guJanuary 31, 2014

The fragile cease-fire in South Sudan has enabled aid agencies to resume their work across the country. However, if there is no genuine peace by April, the rainy season could sabotage their efforts.

People standing on muddy ground at a refugee camp
Image: DW/J.-P.Scholz/A.Kriesch

In three months at the latest, the rainy season will start in South Sudan. If there is no resolution of the conflict by then, the fighting is likely to last for a very long time. Before the rainy season starts, aid organizations in the country not only have to reach all internally displaced persons (IDPs) to distribute aid, they also have to prepare the refugee camps, for which there is hardly enough time as it is.

Risk of disease

On the ground, aid workers of the British aid organization Oxfam are mixing concrete. They are in the so-called "UN House," an IDP camp in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. They are working on improving sanitation, which is one of the main problems at the camp. Concrete foundations are being poured for makeshift wooden constructions. But that is not enough, says Oxfam spokesperson Grace Cahill.

"What we are worried about is that, in the next few months when the rainy season starts, the area will become very wet and waterlogged, and then there will be a risk of waterborne diseases.So now that we're through with the first phase of the emergency, we're trying to really establish more permanent structures and better drainage systems so that there isn't water sitting where it can become disease-ridden," she said.

A man standing outside a row of toilet cubicles under construction
Oxfam is building washing facilities and toilets for IDPs in JubaImage: Jesko Johannsen

How grave the danger is can be seen already. It is very hot: 40 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) and more. Puddles of wastewater have formed around the lavatories. In these puddles, the first maggots are stirring. But the rainy season is not only threatening to worsen hygiene problems for the more than 500,000 IDPs throughout the country.

The World Food Program (WFP) has not been able to reach all the people in need, not by a long shot. It is also distributing food to refugees in the "UN House." The 15,000 people in this camp are better off than hundreds of thousands of IDPs in other parts of the country, Challiss McDonough of the WFP told DW. This is because they are easily accessible.

"We've been providing food rations the best we can. There are also large populations of people who have fled to other parts of the country. So in Lake State, there are a large number of people – about 85,000 - who have basically been sleeping under trees. South Sudan is one of the most logistically complicated countries we work in, even in a normal year. In the rainy season, 60 percent of the country is inaccessible," she said.

The rainy season begins in April, and normally time is needed beforehand to stock up on sufficient food. But not until the cease-fire of 23 January did the aid workers have any hope of gradually reaching all parts of the country. McDonough is worried that this will not be enough.

Bis zu 300.000 Liter werden jeden Tag in des IDP-Camp UN-House gebracht
Up to 300,000 liters of water are brought to the "UN House" camp every dayImage: Jesko Johannsen

"We think there may be some areas where we aren't going to be able to preposition enough food. Already we're moving food by helicopter or plane to areas we haven't been able to reach by road. And that's something we usually do only as a last resort, because you can only move a lot less food that way, and it costs a lot more to do it," she said.

Fears that conflict could continue

The refugee camp in Juba has become a city within a city. No one here is considering returning home yet. There are no shops, hospitals, no possibilities to get water. Kong Tjol has a shop, where he sells buy noodles, flowers and juice. He says it is not yet time to return home as he does not believe the conflict parties really want peace.

Indeed, fighting is still going on in various parts of the country. Who is attacking whom is something that cannot be independently verified. If that doesn't change by the time the rainy season starts, then army spokesperson Philip Agwer fears there will be an extended conflict.

"If the rainy season comes without solutions, the rebels will use the time to mobilize their forces," he said. That does not necessarily only apply to the rebels. The government forces will do the same. The longer the fighting lasts before the rainy season, the higher the likelihood that hundreds of thousands of people will have to spend the rainy season in camps or out in the open.

Supplying the camp in Juba with water is running smoothly. Oxfam brings up to 300,000 liters (79,252 gallons) of fresh water into the camp every day. John Garbel is sitting next to a water distribution point and washing his clothes. As a Nuer, a member of the same ethnic group that rebel leader Riek Machar belongs to, he is afraid, so he is prepared to stay in the camp in the rainy season as well, should it become necessary.

John Garbel sitting in the caqmp
John Garbel is still hoping the rebels will take JubaImage: Jesko Johannsen

"We are here and we will stay here until the rebels come to Juba and we can return home. But right now we can't go out. We would be killed," he says.