The mid-September rains completely washed out road access to the town of Agok, South Sudan. This is the same area that only a few months ago received a wave of mass displacement after conflict sent thousands fleeing from the contested area of Abyei. Just as things began to settle, the rains once again forced people from their makeshift homes.
We arrived by car, by boat and by foot. The muddy roads only allowed our 4x4s to venture so far before we had to rely on the boats that would take us from one side of a vastly swollen river to another. The end of our trek consisted of a 3-mile walk to the town of Agok. Our walk was slow, hindered by the mud that stuck to our gumboots and made each step a heavy one.
Even though the rains had subsided the mud continued. Many people’s huts had been flooded, and others who fled from northern Sudan had been sleeping under trees, sheets, and any other materials they could find. The majority of them had taken to higher ground and were sheltering themselves on the roads and airstrip. Slowly, during our stay they began to return to their home villages.
Hunger is rampant. Even before the floods swept Agok, food and essential staples grew more scarce, following the closure of the border between Sudan and South Sudan several months ago. The alternative, to bring goods from Wau, the nearest town south of Agok, is extremely expensive, but has been the only option available to traders. But the floods cut Agok off entirely.
Without access to roads the markets are virtually barren and what is available sells for prices that is far out of reach for most South Sudanese. Staple foods such as sorghum and lentils are very scarce. A goat is now selling for 500 Sudanese pounds the equivalent to $120. The same tin of sorghum that once sold for 7 Sudanese pounds a few months ago now sells for 32 pounds.
Some traders have been traveling by bicycle to bring a sack’s worth of goods for sale. But those efforts do little to increase food availability. The local parish priest, Fr. Biong , told us that the number of hungry people arriving to the Church in search of food is on the rise. Mothers come to him saying they have nothing for their children. He’s reaching into his own reserves, offering a cup of rice when possible.
During emergency situations our teams really have to think through the best ways to reach people. Some times that means strapping on gumboots and walking. Sometimes that means crossing rivers by boat. Sometimes that means having people come to you. Since our cars couldn’t get to the areas where the majority of people are now staying, we registered people and told them where they could pick up the goods. We drove our cars and parked near the banks where the river was shallow. This way people could easily walk across and pick up their kits of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, soap, rope, a bucket and blankets — enough for 750 families. The goal with these items is to help shelter the displaced while controlling the spread of disease such as malaria.
Much more work still needs to be done in Agok. Constant upheaval over the last few months meant many people were unable to plant and therefore cannot rely on the harvests. Those who did plant have to watch their crops vigilantly as hunger has caused many to turn to theft. CRS will continue to monitor and to assist the local Church in Agok in the months to come.
George Okoth is a diocesan emergency preparedness technical advisor. He is based in Juba, South Sudan.
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