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

Text by Clementina Udine and Aniello D’Ambrosio, Photos by Aniello D’Ambrosio AVSI South Sudan

The Jie population lives isolated from everything and everyone in a semi-desert and almost inaccessible area, where the impact of climate change, which in recent years has exacerbated an unprecedented food crisis within the country, is highly tangible.

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, they are often victims of "cattle-raids" - theft of livestock widespread throughout the country, which represents a serious loss for the families involved due to the economic and social value of these animals.

Besieged in the south by the Toposa and in the north by the Murlé - another ethnic group residing in the neighboring state of Jongolei - the Jie of Lopet live isolated from the rest of the country and without any access to essential basic services. The rainy season - and the mud that continues to flood the roads even afterwards - makes the area inhabited by this population inaccessible for nine months a year, preventing the arrival of regular humanitarian aid.

AVSI is trying to overcome the barriers that often exclude these populations from any form of aid, by organizing the distribution of basic necessities 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 mainly deals with education, health, nutrition and food security, by implementing projects in different areas of the country. Data is currently being collected in Lopet to better understand the area and identify the main needs of the Jie population, in order to 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 biggest food crisis since independence in 2011. About seven million people - nearly 60% of the population - suffer from hunger; one and a half million of these are 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 consequently an increase of food insecurity..

The pressing effects of climate change - added to violence and continuous conflicts in the country - are increasingly exacerbating 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, since the dry season occupies the remaining half of the year, preventing any agricultural production.

The poor harvests they get are not enough to cover the needs of the population, who when stocks run out find themselves feeding on leaves and wild fruit. A village chief in explaining to AVSI operators the basis of his most frequent diet indicates the trees around: lalup leaves, in the most fortunate cases flavored with a little salt.

In Lopet there are no natural water sources: an artificial lake and some pools are the only water sources for humans and animals, who indiscriminately use them side by side. The Jie 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 in search of a source have been unsuccessful. Water is therefore collected during the rainy season - from May to October - thanks to some canals dug by the community; during the remainder of the year the weather is dry, it hardly ever rains and the Jie have to draw from their supplies to survive.

When water runs out, the closest sources are more than 40 km away, in a location that is not only far away but also inhabited by rival Toposa tribes. Crossing these territories for the Jie means risking their lives, this is why they often prefer to go to less dangerous, even if more distant, locations, traveling over 80 km for some 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, concludes his speech of thanks. Although apparently insignificant, these simple goods constitute a first step towards a more dignified life for a population that risks to disappear from the face of earth, in general indifference, paying the price of climate change for which we are all responsible.

The Jie population portrayed by Aniello D'Ambrosio