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South Sudan: Severe flooding increases health risks amid multiple emergencies

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Severe flooding is affecting an estimated 800,000 people across a wide swath of South Sudan, inundating homes and leaving people without adequate food, water, or shelter. Many areas have been flooded since July, while river levels continue to rise, worsening the crisis.

South

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing medical care in the flood-affected areas of Greater Pibor, Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. The needs for medical care are increasing along with a sharp rise in malaria cases and fears of other disease outbreaks.

“This year’s floods are happening against the backdrop of multiple emergencies—including COVID-19, increased violence and fighting, a growing economic crisis, and high levels of food insecurity,” said Ibrahim Muhammad, MSF head of mission in South Sudan. “Now we are preparing for an increase in diseases in all flood-affected areas, such as diarrheal diseases and malaria, given the high risks caused by displacement and crowding, poor hygiene conditions, and a lack of functioning latrines.”

In Greater Pibor, one of the worst affected areas of South Sudan, MSF is running mobile clinics in five villages and an emergency clinic in Pibor town. In the last two months, MSF treated more than 13,000 patients in and around Pibor, including more than 5,000 children under five years old. MSF treated about half these patients for malaria. We also treated more than 160 children for measles.

Heavy floods threaten the lives of thousands of people in Greater Pibor
MSF staff provide care at the inpatient unit in Pibor town. 

Malnutrition is rapidly increasing in the Pibor area, and MSF’s mobile clinics are preparing to provide additional nutrition treatment for young children, alongside MSF’s inpatient therapeutic feeding center in Pibor town. MSF is also distributing over 15,000 gallons of drinking water per day in Pibor because wells have been contaminated by floodwaters. With water levels still rising, MSF is concerned about the viability of its clinic in Pibor and is looking for alternative sites on higher ground outside of town. 

Floods in Pibor
People pass by MSF’s water treatment center in Pibor town. South Sudan 2020 © MSF/Tetiana Gaviuk

In Old Fangak, a town of about 30,000 people in a wetland area of Jonglei state, flooding began in July and water levels are continuing to rise.

“Many houses are affected on a daily basis,” said Dorothy I. Esonwune, MSF project coordinator in Old Fangak. “The focus of everybody in Old Fangak is on scooping out water from around their homes and building up dikes out mud.”

An additional 3,000 people arrived in Old Fangak in late September after heavy rains flooded their homes in the surrounding villages. MSF’s medical teams at the Old Fangak hospital have provided care for about 70 displaced people, including for respiratory tract infections and acute watery diarrhea. Most of the town’s latrines have flooded, raising the risk of waterborne diseases.

High floodwaters in Lankien, Jonglei state, have made it nearly impossible for people to travel to the MSF hospital from surrounding areas. The local airstrip has flooded, making it more difficult to deliver medical supplies or refer patients to other medical facilities when needed.

Floods in Pibor
South Sudan 2020 © MSF/Tetiana Gaviuk

People who do arrive at MSF facilities sometimes describe a harrowing journey. When 13-year-old Yoel fell ill, his father, Stephen Manyang Chan, a widower and father of five, carried him to the MSF clinic in Leer, Unity state, walking through chest-high waters for two hours.

“There are no roads to the hospital, only water,” he said.

South Sudan floods: Yoel, 13-years-old, Bentiu PoC
Yoel, age 13, recovers after his surgery at the MSF hospital in Leer, Unity state.

When waters flooded two MSF outreach sites and threatened to flood the primary health care center in Leer, Unity state, MSF teams salvaged medical supplies and found alternative locations to continue providing services.

In Upper Nile state, MSF set up an emergency clinic serving the towns of Canal and Khorfulus, which can only be reached by boat from Malakal town. An MSF team treated malaria and diarrhea, conducted a rapid nutrition screening, provided psychosocial support, and distributed essential supplies to 545 households.

Heavy floods threaten the lives of thousands of people in Greater Pibor
People line up to seek care at an MSF mobile clinic in Lukurunyarg.

In areas where floodwaters are too high to walk, people are using makeshift rafts constructed from plastic sheeting or large plastic water tanks reshaped as canoes, with a shovel for an oar. Those who stay to protect their houses use sandbags or mud walls to try to stop the water.

“The water rose surprisingly fast,” said 39-year-old Tbisa Willion from the town of Canal in Upper Nile state. “We left, without thinking, to save our lives. We found shelter in a school, but it was destroyed too. We went to our neighbor. We took a canoe to return to our house and tried to save some belongings, but we found only a few plates. I lost my chickens, my 10 goats. I have nowhere to live.”

As the floods continue to impact people across South Sudan, MSF is conducting a series of aerial and ground assessments in Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states to identify how to help the most affected communities.

MSF has worked in South Sudan since 1983, providing medical care in many parts of the country where access to health care and other humanitarian services is limited. MSF currently works in 15 locations throughout South Sudan.

Floods in Pibor
A woman carries tree branches to construct a new house in Pibor town.

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