June 17, 2021

The price of climate change: a population at risk in South Sudan due to drought

Isolated, excluded, ignored: the Lopet area in southeastern South Sudan is home to 20,000 people of the Jie ethnic group, a population scattered in about fifteen villages who might disappear due to drought. AVSI is in the region providing essential services

The Jie population lives in a semi-desert and almost inaccessible area. The impact of climate change, which has exacerbated an unprecedented food crisis in South Sudan in recent years, is visible. The Jie are a sub-ethnic group of the Toposa, an indigenous population of the east Kapoeta county, with which they have always been in conflict.

Breeders of cows and goats, the Jie are often victims of “cattle-raids” – theft of livestock widespread throughout the country. Due to the animals’ economic and social value, the theft represents a severe loss to the families involved.

Trapped in the south by the Toposa and in the north by the Murlé – another ethnic group living in the neighboring state of Jongolei – the Jie live isolated from the rest of the country and do not have access to essential services. The rainy season – and the mud that floods the roads – makes the area inaccessible for nine months a year, preventing the arrival of humanitarian aid.

AVSI is trying to overcome the barriers that often exclude these populations from any form of aid by organizing the distribution of essential items with the support of the South Sudan Humanitarian Fund (SSHF), managed by the UN OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Present in South Sudan since 1992, AVSI implements projects in different regions in education, health, nutrition, and food security. Data is currently being collected in Lopet to understand the area better, identify the main needs of the Jie population and respond in the most appropriate way.

Despite the presence of many humanitarian organizations in the country, the food emergency persists and involves more and more people due to the increase in drought and other occurrences related to climate change, affecting to a greater extent the most inaccessible areas such as Lopet.

South Sudan is experiencing the most significant food crisis since the country’s independence in 2011. About seven million people – nearly 60% of the population – suffer from hunger: one and a half million live in a state of emergency, struggling for survival every day. Frequent waves of drought have drastically reduced soil fertility, causing a decrease in agricultural production and increased food insecurity.

The acute effects of climate change – added to violence and continuous conflicts in the country – have increasingly exacerbated an already critical situation, especially in the most remote areas.

The Jie have lived in these inhospitable and arid areas for centuries, growing sorghum and corn for six months out of twelve. The dry season takes the rest of the year, preventing any agricultural production.

The small harvests are not enough to cover the needs of the population. When stocks run out, they find themselves feeding on leaves and wild fruit. While explaining to AVSI staff the basis of his most regular diet, a villager points to the trees around: lalup leaves, flavored with a bit of salt if he is lucky.

In Lopet, there are no natural water sources: an artificial lake and some pools are the only sources of water available to humans and animals, who indiscriminately use them side by side. The Jie people drink, wash, clean utensils and bring their animals to drink and wash in the same pools. In Lopet there are no wells, and many excavation attempts searching for a source have been unsuccessful. Therefore, water is collected during the rainy season – from May to October – through canals dug by the community.  When the weather is dry and it hardly ever rains, the Jie have to draw from their supplies to survive.

When water runs out, the closest resource is more than 40 km away, in a location that is distant and inhabited by the rival Toposa tribe. Crossing these territories for the Jie means risking their lives, so they often prefer to go to less dangerous, even if more distant, locations, traveling over 80 km to get water.

“Thanks to AVSI, we have the hope of being treated like human beings”: this is how the head of one of the villages that benefited from the distribution of matches, oil, and salt, following one of AVSI’s first missions in Lopet, concluded his speech. 

Although seeming insignificant, these little goods represent the first step towards a more dignified life for a population that risks disappearing from the face of the earth.

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