South Sudan crisis: Eating water lilies to survive

November 5, 2014
Originally published in: The Daily Beast
Written by Crystal Wells, Senior Communications Officer, Concern Worldwide
Photo by Jennifer O'Gorman

South Sudan faces the worst food crisis in the world — and it’s about to dramatically worsen. The need for aid is urgent and growing.

BENTIU, South Sudan—The vast majority of the more than two million people in South Sudan facing severe food insecurity are not living in camps. Insecurity continues to make it impossible for humanitarian organizations like Concern Worldwide to reach those most in need, leaving people stranded in isolated pockets, completely cut off from aid.  The mind-boggling scale of such a vast and diffuse crisis can render the whole situation a blur, but through the harrowing stories of increasingly hungry families the reality of their suffering comes into sharp focus.

Woman and son sit in UN base in Bentiu

Nyalada Maluit and two-year-old son, Lat Machar,came to the camp in late June after months living in the bush, where they ate water lilies to survive. Nyalada was shot three times when fighting came to their home in Kyergeng, a county southeast of Bentiu.

Nyalada Maluit was shot three times by crossfire when war descended on her small rural village of Kyergeng, just three kilometers south of Bentiu, the capital of Unity State in South Sudan’s barren north. She fled with her children 135 kilometers south to Leer, where she sought treatment at a medical clinic.

But the war soon followed her there. Five days later, while still healing in a hospital bed from the bullet wounds on her wrist, back, and leg, fighting sent Nyalada and her family once again running, this time deep into the bush.

It was January, just one month after a political rivalry between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar erupted into civil war. Nyalada and her family, like hundreds of thousands of other South Sudanese, left whatever belongings they had behind in the race for safety. With no food, water, or shelter, Nyalada and her family had no choice but to survive off the land, drinking from the stream and boiling water lilies for food.

They lived in the open until June. “There was no food, no more water lilies,” Nyalada says. A scar marks her right wrist where the bullet hit her eight months ago. “We came here seeking protection and food.”

On the Brink of Catastrophe

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is now home to the worst food crisis in the world. Despite this, donors have only met 60 percent of the funds that the UN and humanitarian organizations like Concern Worldwide estimate is needed and peace talks continue to flounder.

The three states most likely to be affected—Unity, Jonglei, and Upper Nile—are those still embroiled in conflict, where fighting prevented people from planting before the rains arrived in late spring. This means there will be no crops to harvest when the rains stop in November and the number of people facing severe food insecurity is expected to rise by one million people in the first three months of 2015.

Women wade through flood water in Bentiu

The camp, which is home to some 47,000 people, was heavily flooded due to monsoon rains in July. Concern Worldwide has been working in the camp since January and is providing clean water, sanitation, nutrition, and shelter and other essential supplies.

Those at gravest risk of starvation are those living in remote villages or deep in the bush, completely cut off from international aid. Some 1.4 million people are displaced inside South Sudan and nearly 100,000 of them are seeking refuge on UN bases across the country. People continue to trickle into the base in Bentiu, seeking not only safety, but also food, with many saying there is little or nothing to eat where they came from.

“Since fighting erupted, people were not able to farm,” says Zacharia Diing Akol, a founder and researcher ofThe Sudd Institute, a South Sudanese think tank.  “Those who don’t get humanitarian assistance will be in very dire need.”

This is the constant worry of one mother, Nyalam Lleu, who brought five of her children to the camp in Bentiu two months ago after heavy fighting hit her village. She planned to leave them with her brother, who was already living in the camp, and go back and pick up her four oldest children, but ongoing insecurity has made the journey impossible.

“I am worried about my children outside,” she says. “Here there is food. There they have no food. I think about it day and night.”

Malnutrition in Bentiu Camp

While food is distributed to families, children living on the UN base in Bentiu continue to struggle with malnutrition. Unlike those stranded in the bush, families in the camp in Bentiu have access to food, clean water, and basic services, but the environment they are living in makes it nearly impossible to keep children healthy.

Monsoon rains sparked widespread flooding that submerged the camp in water. With sporadic fighting continuing outside for control over Bentiu and the oil fields that come with it, people fear they would be killed if they left the camp, leaving them with no choice but to live surrounded by toxic pools of waste water.

“We are seeing many children who are severely malnourished from a combination of a lack of food and nutrients from when they were outside and diarrhea from living around the contaminated water inside the camp,” says Adelaide Challier, Concern Worldwide’s nutritionist in Bentiu.

Child eating ready-to-eat therapeutic food

Concern admitted 113 children younger than five into its nutrition program in Bentiu the past two weeks alone. In August, a recent study showed that malnutrition rates have dropped considerably in the camp, from nearly 21 percent down to 6.5 percent.

For children on the brink of severe malnutrition, diarrhea can be the trigger that pushes them over the edge. Malaria, which is spread my mosquitoes, has also been on the rise since the camp was flooded.

Concern, which has worked in South Sudan since 1994, admitted 113 children younger than five into its nutrition program in Bentiu the past two weeks alone. In August, a recent study showed that malnutrition rates have dropped considerably in the camp, from nearly 21 percent in June down to 6.5 percent.

This is partly because the camp population has largely stabilized after heavy clashes this spring drove tens of thousands of people onto the base, sending the camp population skyrocketing from 7,900 in early April to over 47,000 today. Another driver of the decline in malnutrition rates is also likely that people have access to nutrition and health care services when they need them.

The months living in the bush surviving on water lilies took a toll on Nyalada’s youngest child, two-year-old Lat Machar. He is now undergoing treatment for severe malnutrition with Concern. Nyalada says he has been steadily improving.

When asked what would have happened if she and her family stayed in the bush, Nyalada answered bluntly, “We would have died.”

This story was originally published in The Daily Beast.