Famine response in South Sudan “We go where the displaced go”

As South Sudan is grappling with a hunger crisis, volatility and violence, Cordaid constantly adapts its response to levels of insecurity and seasonal challenges. “When violence forces thousands to move to the middle of nowhere, we move with them”, Enkas Chau, Cordaid Emergency Program Manager, explains.

From famine to severe food emergency

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Enkas Chau (right) inspecting water well construction in Aburoc.

In the first half of 2017 Cordaid was part of the international community that responded to the famine that broke out since February. In June IPC levels in South Sudan went from 5 – famine, the most extreme level of food insecurity – to 4. “That is encouraging”, says Chau, “but it’s hardly enough. 4 still means there’s an acute hunger crisis and a severe food emergency, posing high risks for malnutrition among children under 5. Nearly two million displaced people are still coping with insecurity and hunger.”

Aburoc: a new humanitarian frontline

In the first months of 2017 continuous fighting between SPLM and SPLM-IO drove tens of thousands of families out of their homes, further increasing the massive numbers of IPDs in Upper Nile and Western Bar el Ghazal and Unity State. In April especially, when SPLA fighters captured the town of Kodok, an estimated 30.000 people fled to the town of Aburoc. This remote settlement in Upper Nile became yet another humanitarian frontline.

Displaced families are now working plots of land, planting crops. Others are fishing. They are not waiting, they are acting.

Enkas Chau, Cordaid emergency program manager 

In June, the onset of the rainy season, the scale of military operations decreased slightly. In a way, this facilitates the aid operations. “But then again, rain on dry land leads to serious logistical challenges”, explains Chau.

Phase 1: minimizing risks

Phase 1 of Cordaid’s famine response in South Sudan started last May. “Based on the famine forecasts in Unity state, Wau, and Upper Nile we started a food voucher program in IDP camps located in these parts of the country. Our main aim was to minimize risks, especially to prevent further malnutrition among children.”

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Displaced family in Wau (© Ilvy Nijokiktjien for Cordaid)

In Upper Nile, Wau and Unity combined we serviced 3600 displaced households. “When we started, these families had just arrived in IDP camps. Many of them were just living under trees, hopelessly waiting. They had nothing except bits of tarpaulin.”

Patut, one of nearly two million displaced people

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Patut, a displaced elderly woman in Aburoc, holding a Cordaid food voucher (© Enkas Chau / Cordaid)

One of the many IDPs was Patut, an old lady with several grandchildren. She fled Kodok in April during the fighting and lost contact with her sons since then. “When she arrived in Aburoc she just lived under a tree without any cover”, Chau remembers. “Others may pick firewood to earn some cash. Patut is too old to walk far. Two weeks after the last food WFP distribution her food stock ran out”, he goes on. Patut is one of 6000 extremely vulnerable people (1000 households) in Aburoc IDP settlement Cordaid has provided with food vouchers. They include elderly-headed households, families with malnourished children, female-headed families, as well as pregnant and lactating women.

When Kodok  was captured, thousands of displaced left the sites where we worked. Our staff had to be evacuated. But we ended up by following the IDPs to the town of Aburoc.

Enkas Chau, Cordaid emergency program manager 

Food vouchers: feeding the hungry and stimulating local food economies

Our food voucher program allowed them to buy staple food items such as sorghum, beans, lentils, and oil, sugar, salt. “We went as near to the IDP camps as possible to distribute the vouchers. And we arranged with local food suppliers to come to the camps as well. This way people who were starving could buy food. And the voucher system also stimulated local food production and local economy”, Chau says. “Mind you”, he continues, “not only had the displaced families lost whatever they had – their livestock, their homes – food prices have also skyrocketed in the last year, with an inflation of over 800%. In no way were they capable of meeting their food needs.”

Phase 2: creating medium term perspectives

From there Cordaid went one step further to provide perspectives that go beyond next day’s needs. Chau explains: “No one wants to wait for food or for money to buy it. People want to stand on their own feet and restore their livelihoods.”

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Hygiene promotion in Aburoc IDP settlement by Cordaid volunteers (© Cordaid/Enkas Chau)

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Cordaid team making a farming demonstration site in Aburoc IDP settlement (©Enkas Chau/Cordaid)

This is why Cordaid started phase 2. Chau explains: “We handed out seeds and farming and fishing tools to over 2000 households in Unity State and Upper Nile province. When you go back to the places where we started in May, the picture is different. Displaced families are working plots of land, planting crops. Others are fishing. They are not waiting, they are acting. The temporary shelter given to them by other agencies has improved their situation as well.”

From herding cattle to ploughing fields

Most of the displaced families used to herd their cattle. They have lost their livestock and never had the chance to pick up farming skills, needed to work the land in and around the IDP camps. “This is why Cordaid staff set up demonstration plots”, Chau says. “We show them how to space their seeds, how to plough the land and protect seedlings against insects.”

Clean water: an absolute necessity

Another source of despair for IDPs is the lack of clean drinking water. “Local wells cannot satisfy the abrupt increase in demand of clean water in and around the IDP camps. The wells are shallow, water is turbid, almost black. On top of that due to lack of latrines people defecate out in the open, contaminating the wells. No wonder there were cholera cases in Aburoc. This is why we installed 3 new and deeper water wells right there in Aburoc settlement area, increasing quality and quantity of safe water. We started to build communal latrines and set up a demonstration site, showing how to use tarpaulin to collect rain water in a safe and smart way. And our staff and volunteers carried out water treatment and hygiene promotion.”

Setting up an aid operation with a tent and a phone

In volatile settings, such as South Sudan, aid workers go to the edge to reach the most vulnerable. Chau, modest and down to earth as he is, downplays his personal challenges of dealing with South Sudan. “Sure, it’s hard sometimes, but that’s the way it is. I have lived and worked in tough conditions for the past 5 years, in Yemen and other humanitarian hotspots and now in South Sudan.”

With some livestock and newly adopted farming skills, with whatever reserve they have built up, displaced families are better equipped to face new adversities.

Enkas Chau, Cordaid emergency program manager

By ‘hard’ Chau refers to setting an entire aid operation in Aburoc, last June. “When Kodok town was captured by SPLA forces, thousands of displaced left the sites where we worked. Our office was looted and staff had to be evacuated. But we ended up by following the IDPs to the town of Aburoc. There was nothing there, no buildings, no electricity, no banks, not even pens or paper. We just set up our own tents and started from there.”

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Cordaid staff in Aburoc (© Ilvy Nijokiktjien for Cordaid)

Chau himself spent a few weeks living in Aburoc. “My colleagues had a harder time than myself”, he says. 4 of his colleagues spent entire months sleeping in tents during short nights, getting farming and fishing equipment for thousands of people all the way to Aburoc by air during very long days. Helping lost and traumatized families to move from utter despair to finding some form of dignity and hope. “They do this in one of the most conflict- and poverty-affected settings on earth. With no computers, no office, no vehicles. Just a phone, a tent, cash and a lot passion and endurance”, Chau adds.

Bracing for the future

The planting season is soon to end in South Sudan. The dry season will start in November. “And with it, armed violence is bound to flare up again”, Chau predicts. To help displaced families brace themselves for the drought and the volatilities of conflict, Cordaid will soon start providing conditional cash grants to displaced families.

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On the road from Aburoc to Kodok (Upper Nile) (© Ilvy Nijokiktjien for Cordaid)

“It will allow them to buy – and later on maybe sell – some livestock”, Chau concludes, “and to further improve their livelihood and create a small buffer of food and income.”

Farming will stop in November. Possibly displaced families will be forced to move once more. With some livestock, with the newly adopted farming skills, with whatever reserve they have built up in the last year thanks to Cordaid’s modest efforts, they are better equipped to face new adversities.

(Cordaid’s activities described in this article are financed with private donor funds that were raised by the SHO, an alliance of Dutch aid agencies)

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