When deciding where to live, would you rather choose a place exposed to catastrophic floods or one that experiences frequent armed conflict? While this question might sound absurd, it reflects the difficult choice faced by millions of South Sudanese. Since independence in 2011, South Sudan has experienced chronic instability punctuated by civil war that has led to hundreds of thousands of fatalities and one of Africa’s largest forced displacement crises, with more than 2 million fleeing to neighboring countries, and at least 2 million internally displaced.
While fleeing violence and conflict, many have taken refuge in the vast floodplains and wetlands. Wetlands make up more than 7% of the country’s land area. However, these are also the areas that have experienced the worst of recent catastrophic floods. Flood prone areas are less accessible to armed groups and are generally less valuable for agriculture and livestock grazing. Refugees in Maban county, in northeast South Sudan say these walls of water act as a defensive barrier against armed conflict. The tradeoff is tragic when floodwaters rise, placing these populations at higher risk of death by water.
This is one of the sobering findings of ‘Rising from the Depths’, a World Bank report exploring opportunities and trade-offs for aligning South Sudan’s water sector investments and policies with its commitment to peace, stability, and durable solutions for the forcibly displaced. The report seeks to elevate water security as an issue critical for national development and stability – and not just a humanitarian need. Examining water security through the lens of people, production, and protection, the report argues that water insecurity is an existential threat to the country.
The dramatic flood events of the past four years are a stark reminder of the water-related threats faced by South Sudan. The May-November 2021 floods, reportedly the most devastating since the early 1960s, affected 9 out of 10 states, impacting around one million people and displacing more than 300,000. South Sudan is already a global hotspot of flood risk, ranking 7th in the world for share of total country population exposed to river floods, and the situation is expected to worsen under climate change.
While floods capture headlines, they are just one of the many threats from water insecurity, many of which have disproportionate impacts on women and girls. More than 60% of the population (or about 6.6 million people) lack access to basic drinking water supply and 75% (8.2 million people) practice open defecation. Parts of South Sudan also experience frequent droughts, which affect the mobility of pastoralists and farmers who rely on natural resources. Moreover, lack of reliable irrigation and drainage and human-induced soil erosion contribute to low agricultural productivity.
Yet, the story of water in South Sudan is also one of opportunity. The report shows that South Sudan can harness the ubiquity of water within its borders to advance national development and stability. Seasonal flooding already sustains the livelihoods of at least six million people living along the Nile and Sobat Rivers and the wide eastern and western floodplains. Increased water availability during the main crop growing seasons, through irrigation and improved land and water management, can enhance agricultural yields and bolster food production. Foundational investments in water supply and sanitation can reduce child mortality and incidence of infectious disease, improve personal safety of women and girls, and promote school attendance, among other benefits.
With climate change increasing the destructive potential of floods and droughts, acting on water security has never been more urgent. Better water infrastructure is part of the solution, but South Sudan will also need to follow in the direction of other flood prone countries, such as Bangladesh, Japan, and the Netherlands, that have learned to work with, rather than against, the floodwaters. Water security under climate change is achieved not by trying solely to control water and diverting its flow, but by also focusing on (i) increasing community preparedness and delineating areas for water, leaving ‘room for the river’, and (ii) making productive use of the water for household consumption, livelihoods, and development.
A water secure future – one in which the South Sudanese no longer must choose between escaping floods or escaping violence – can be achieved through complementary investments in infrastructure and institutional mechanisms to involve diverse stakeholders and all levels of government in an inclusive process.