South Sudan: after war refugees, climate refugees

South Sudan: after war refugees, climate refugees

Canadian Reza Eshaghian has participated in nearly a dozen missions with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but never has this doctor witnessed such dramatic effects of climate change on people's health as during a recent mission to South Sudan.

Six months after historic flooding in several parts of South Sudan, flood waters have not receded.< /p>

More than five years after his first mission to South Sudan in 2016, in the midst of civil war, Dr. Reza Eshaghian witnessed the worsening of the situation in this country in the struggling with historic flooding.

While traveling in late 2021 and early 2022, the Vancouver doctor observed that camps hosting Civil War refugees are now also camps for climate refugees.

Normally, we participate in projects where people have been displaced because of conflicts. This time it was obviously due to climate change.

Since 2018, South Sudan has experienced above average rainfall, causing unprecedented flooding. The year 2021 has been particularly devastating. In several regions, the waters have never receded and heavy rainfall continues, Dr. Eshaghian told Radio-Canada.

In Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states, hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes. These refugees are now isolated in huge compounds surrounded by mud dykes, sticks and plastic sheeting that retain flood water.

“It's impressive to see that these improvised dikes stop the water. But it was to be temporary. They had hoped that the water would go away at some point, but it didn't. ”

— Dr. Reza Eshaghian

Bentiu camp is surrounded by water.

When Dr Eshaghian's plane flew over Bentiu camp in Unity state, he was flabbergasted by the scale of the problem. The region was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

When you look into the distance, above the barriers, you only see water. Everything is surrounded by water. The barriers are so high that it feels like landing underwater.

Before the floods, this camp housed 100,000 people. At least 30,000 new people sought refuge at the camp, where he helped manage refugee care, he said. It is now a climate refugee camp, the doctor laments.

Refugees have set up tents and temporary shelters in this enclosure protected by a mud dike .

According to him, these floods only worsen the health situation in this country.

Refugees in and around Bentiu camp were left without water, toilets, food.

All the elements are there to facilitate disease transmission, says Dr. Eshaghian. People are crowded together and the risk of spreading infectious diseases increases.

Besides, when he arrived, hepatitis B was spreading in the camp. To prevent a measles outbreak, a cholera vaccination campaign was implemented.

Dr Reza Eshaghian briefs the Médecins Sans Frontières team that carried out a malnutrition assessment in Bentiu camp.

The floods have also spiked cases of malnutrition, Dr Eshaghian and his team found.

Since thousands of hectares of land has been flooded, farmers have not been able to cultivate their land for months.

In addition, according to the UN, at least 800,000 head of cattle perished due to lack of food. Dr. Eshaghian observed this impact. People were trying to save their cattle so they could survive, but one animal after another was dying. There were corpses all over the streets. It was traumatic.

Dr Eshaghian says he was heartbroken to see that even with the rations distributed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), the majority of people did not have enough to eat.

“I was talking to the WFP people. I told them that the amount of food given was not enough. They said to me, “We know that, but we don't have enough money, so we have to reduce the rations.”

—Dr Reza Eshaghian

How do you treat malnutrition knowing that these people will have nothing to eat after being treated, he wonders?

When he arrived at Bentiu camp, Dr Reza Eshaghian witnessed how the floods had driven thousands of people to starvation.

To make matters worse, last week the WFP suspended part of its food aid to South Sudan. The organization says it lacks funding due to skyrocketing food prices due to the war in Ukraine. More than 70 percent of South Sudan's population will face extreme hunger this year, the WFP warned last week.

Thousands of people have been forced to take refuge in camps. The harsh conditions in these places increase the risk of disease transmission.

Dr Eshaghian says his mission to South Sudan has given him insight into how climate change is harming people. poor and the most vulnerable.

“They are paying for climate change, while no one here in the West is aware that climate effects are already killing people elsewhere in the world. »

— Dr. Reza Eshaghian

Besides, scientists have been hammering this message for several years. The risk, they say, of certain infectious diseases spreading further and new pathogens causing pandemics increases with climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Dr. Eshaghian wonders how long these people will be able to live in these camps surrounded by water. It's not a way of life. How to feed them? How to treat them? Is this place still livable? What if the water never recedes?

Organizations like MSF have started to adapt their interventions in the face of the multiplication of climatic disasters. And Dr. Eshaghian, too, is gearing up to take on more and more missions to help those who will bear the effects of climate change. We are already seeing the consequences of climate change. I saw them. And that's a grim prospect for the future. We have to take this seriously.

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