Why people are eating water lilies in flooded, war-torn South Sudan

In South Sudan, war and semi-permanent flooding have left people to scavenge for food, with long-term consequences for their health

A young man unloads a large bag of sorghum at a makeshift port
on the exterior of the Bentiu internal displacement camp. The camp sits under the water level, protected only by a massive, rectangular mud dike. (Guy Peterson for The Washington Post)

CHOTYIEL, South Sudan — It was 1 p.m., her children still hadn’t eaten, and every item on Nyaguey Dak Kieth’s “long to-do list” pertained to surviving another day. So Nyaguey grabbed a plastic bucket and an empty sack and set off from her village surrounded by floodwater. Those waters had upended her life, but also provided a food option — not a desirable one, but one of the few left.

Water lilies. They’d been keeping her family alive for two years.

They were bitter. Hard to digest. They required hours of manual labor — cutting, pounding, drying, sifting — just to be made edible. Nyaguey could still remember her initial shock at eating them, figuring they’d be a short-term measure. And now, with the floodwaters holding their ground, she could trace a two-year arc of distress in what the lilies had become: sustenance so vital that people were slogging farther and farther into the waters to find them, before someone else did.

“I can see some lilies here,” another woman told Nyaguey after a group of four had walked 20 minutes out of town, reaching the edge of the waters.

“Not enough,” Nyaguey said, and the group kept moving. “It looks like somebody already collected most of these.”

Climate disasters are often perceived as finite events — with an emergency and a recovery, a beginning and an end. But as these disasters grow in magnitude and frequency, striking poor countries dependent on a stretched humanitarian system, some are no longer just passing crises, but permanent states of being. That dynamic points to the extraordinary stakes in global climate talks, which center on the question of how wealthy nations can foot the bill for climate-related destruction — even when that destruction is chronic.

In South Sudan, parts of the country have been underwater now for four years. Other areas, two or three. Some 15 percent of the country is submerged year-round, as opposed to 5 percent several years ago.

One extreme season has followed another, with major rainfalls flowing in from countries upstream, such as Uganda and Ethiopia. Over time, the soil below has turned sticky, sealing the waters in place. Subsistence farmers are bracing for the possibility that their land has changed for good — giving way to a new water mass the size of Lake Michigan, with 1 million people displaced because of flooding, their crops destroyed, their cattle now scattered bones.

South Sudan illustrates how even robust investments in relief aid are no match for the cataclysms that climate change, war and corruption have unleashed on many countries. This landlocked nation — which only gained independence from Sudan in 2011 — benefits from more Western funding than its neighbors, with much of it from the United States.

That money allows for day-to-day triage — upholding mud dikes, maintaining city-sized displacement camps, and providing food aid to some but not all who are hungry. But it isn’t enough to help people recover.

The United Nations has been forced to pare back projects aimed at helping communities adapt or become more resilient. Major nations have yet to establish a long-planned international fund aimed at helping countries deal with climate disasters, and once created, it is likely to be too small by multitudes.

South Sudan’s own government, ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt, can’t convince investors to fund its own projects for climate adaptation, which exist by the dozen — but mostly only on paper. The consequence is that Nyaguey, and hundreds of thousands around her, are in the same emergency mode of two years ago. Only weaker, sicker, more tired, more stressed.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “When will this ever end? I am just so, so tired.”

Nyaguey, 43, had been poor, but not desperately poor, before central South Sudan’s inundation. She had been a maize farmer. She had a small disposable income. She bought sugar, coffee, shoes for her 10 children, and had free time to meet with friends, who would sometimes laugh with her until late at night. But her old home is now submerged, and her new home is a makeshift mud hut in one of her county’s only two villages still poking out of the water. She rarely sees her husband, who has two other wives living in different places.

Her entire days are “devoted to the lilies,” she said, and collecting them has proved so punishing — two-hour walks, hours more in the water, lugging them back home — that she’s developed chronic coughs, regular fevers, and found herself many mornings asking if she could bear to return to the water. “As long as my children are alive,” she’s told herself, “I’ll keep going.”

After deciding against the first patch of lilies, Nyaguey and the other women trekked farther away from their village, deeper into an eerie landscape of dragonflies and sickly brittle trees twisting halfway out the floodwaters. For as long as possible, the women tried to keep themselves dry, laboring through a slightly elevated but muddy path. Time in the water meant exposure to poisonous snakes, untold bacteria, and run-ins with submerged thorns. But then there was no choice. After 40 minutes, they saw a patch of lilies, blooming in abundance, in deeper nearby waters.

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“Can you stand?” one of the women asked.

The water was chest-high.

“Come in,” Nyaguey told the others, and she opened her bag.

‘Not able to keep up’

The explanation for Nyaguey’s unconventional food staple begins 300 miles away from the flood zone, in a compound in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where the United Nations’ food agency tracks the money coming in: Compared with what’s been requested, it is less than ever before.

For decades, the world’s humanitarian aid has lagged behind need, which comes primarily from a handful of national donors. But the gap was less dire before Ukraine’s wartime needs siphoned off a portion of aid money, before that war triggered a rise in food prices, and — more broadly — before human-caused pollution accelerated the number of crises. According to research from Oxfam, humanitarian appeals for extreme weather events have increased eightfold from 20 years ago. And though certain sudden-onset disasters break through with social media pleas and a surge of donations, on balance the world’s most aid-dependent countries wind up as either have-somes or have-almost-nothings.

“The humanitarian system is not able to keep up,” said Harjeet Singh, the head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International. “For us, the mind-set had always been, ‘We can do it. We can build resilience.’ But now we see we are failing.”

By those grim margins, South Sudan is a have-some. It gets more requested aid than Somalia, which is facing its worst drought in decades. It gets far more than Chad, where declining harvests and shrinking water supplies have ignited conflicts. Majority-Christian South Sudan is supported in particular by the United States, which backed its long fight for independence from predominantly Muslim Sudan; since 2011, U.S. administrations have given South Sudan $9 billion in aid. Before a projected dip this year, the aid groups operating in South Sudan had typically received about 70 percent of their requested funding, with the World Food Program (WFP) as the biggest recipient.

But that level, in a country beset with problems even before the flooding, is still dire.

Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP director in South Sudan, has been put in the position of choosing which hungry people are offered help. For the last two years, even the hungriest have been given only half-rations. Nyaguey said her family goes through its month’s allotment in five days. While WFP still does carry out some resiliency-building work, it has had to significantly scale back certain programs that could help the country long-term, including one to help farmers plant rice, a crop that needs to be submerged.

“We have all these huge, aspirational goals. But we’re way down here,” McGroarty said, lowering her hand to the floor.

People unsure about their next meal can’t use their energy in other ways that might help them recover, McGroarty said. The half-rations amount to 292 grams about two-thirds of a pound — of cereal per day.

“Have you seen what 200 grams of cereal looks like?” she asked.

South Sudan depends on the “disaster begging bowl,” as Oxfam termed it, because so many earlier catastrophes and blunders prevented any degree of self-sufficiency. Prospects were once bright for this fledgling nation, but rival leaders, representing different ethnic groups, tipped it into several years of civil war, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 400,000 people.

Its economy could have boomed with one of the world’s youngest demographics, but most of those young people ended up never regularly attending school. Its government could have capitalized on the combination of oil revenue and fertile land — building roads, shipping food — but elites have instead siphoned off “staggering” sums from public coffers, according to the United Nations, while leaving the country with almost no infrastructure. Flooding has merely intensified a food crisis that had already been among the world’s gravest.

In many of the countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, violence and corruption are force multipliers. South Sudan says it does have climate plans of its own, and government documents list page after page of priorities that would make for a country with better irrigation, more renewable energy, infrastructure that could better withstand disasters. But the government says more than 90 percent of that funding would need to come from “international investments.” For now, most projects, including those aimed for the short-term, have the same status: “Yet to be implemented.”

“If you say [this work] will cost $100 billion and you have nothing, nothing will happen,” said Lutana Musa, the director general of climate change at South Sudan’s Environment Ministry.

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The government’s shortcomings play out in the flood zone, an area where rival factions fought during the civil war, with territory changing hands more than 10 times. Many people, then, took shelter at a displacement camp in Bentiu, a grid of tents holding 120,000 people.

Because of the flooding, managing that camp has required even more resources and aid. The floodwaters have risen higher than the camp’s surface, which is staved off from ruin only because of miles of dikes, built in haste, with a combination of U.N. and South Sudanese money, two years ago. Even one dike failure could inundate the camp in three hours, said Joshua Kanyara, an engineer with the United Nations’ migration agency, whose group helped in the construction.

Some international officials say privately that it makes more sense for the flood zone to be written off, with people encouraged to relocate elsewhere. But the government can’t offer the basics found in the aftermath of other disasters — financial aid or prefab accommodation on higher land. Even if it could, experts say, there is widespread distrust: The regional governor has been accused by the United Nations of authorizing brutal extrajudicial killings. And a labyrinth of ethnic disputes makes people uncertain they’d be safe in a new area.

So, people stay where they are and try to survive.

Where everyone eats the lilies

One of those places is Chotyiel, a village of 5,500 people with no electricity, no running water, no cars, and only one way out: along a mile-long mud bank that leads to a main road. The Post was able to reach the village by embedding with WFP, traveling in all-terrain amphibious vehicles with five-foot-high tires.

In Chotyiel, the closest market is four hours away by canoe. Most people, including Nyaguey, can’t afford boats to fish.

That makes the village a fair place to see what two years of a diet dominated by one food can do to the body.

“Even I eat the water lilies, and I’m in government,” said Kim Kiir, the local administrator.

The people of the flood zone don’t eat the part of the lily visible from the surface — the white flowers and the circular leaves. Instead, they harvest the parts below, reaching into the waters for the bulbs, detaching them from a reptilian network of thick stalks. The seeds of those bulbs, after being sifted and pounded and cooked over the flame, yield a greenish porridge. It’s high in protein. Many say a little milk can leaven the harsh taste.

The floods have brought so many new stresses to Chotyiel that it’s hard to attribute a spate of sicknesses to any one factor. But officials in the village say the wrenching diet is a major contributor, as are the risks lily collectors face in the water. Several women have died of snakebites. Children regularly deal with severe constipation, and with their immune systems weakened, they and other villagers have also experienced a surge in diarrheal sicknesses. The village used to see one person per month die on average; now it’s three to five. In the week The Post visited Chotyiel, three children died.

“We are very, very vulnerable,” said Reik Chatiem, the deputy administrator for the county.

Across the flood zone, the number of people who are critically malnourished has increased dramatically over the last few years, according to data used by WFP.

Mamman Mustapha, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan, said there are compounding factors, beyond diet, that explain why. With so much land submerged, people are crammed closer together, allowing diseases to spread more easily. Some of the facilities where people used to seek care are underwater. At the same time, their challenges in finding adequate food have left many, particularly children, more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

“So you see how the dots connect,” he said.

Water lilies are a plant, not a base for a diet.

“It’s inadequate by itself,” he said.

Because the waters surrounding Chotyiel are neither draining readily into the ground nor flowing elsewhere, the only cure for the flooding is evaporation and time. The country would need three or four consecutive relatively dry years to reclaim its submerged land, said Richard Aludra, a water specialist at the Dutch Embassy in Juba.

That doesn’t appear likely to happen.

South Sudan’s central flatland — low-lying, at the crossroads of waterways — acts as a catch basin for extreme events happening in other countries, and it had always seen seasonal flooding. But over the last few years, those extreme events have happened in closer succession, with water rushing in so steadily that it’s broken the seasonal patterns.

The rainfall across East Africa is determined primarily by the ebb and flow of Indian and Pacific Ocean temperature patterns. Chris Funk, who runs the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, said that the volatility of the ocean has been supercharged, becoming hotter after having absorbed much of the excess energy caused by human emissions — equivalent to millions of underwater atomic bomb detonations over the last decade alone. Funk devoted a chapter of his 2021 book to the mega-rain event that jump-started flooding in South Sudan, saying that climate change “almost certainly” increased its magnitude.

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“And if climate change contributed, it means it’ll happen again soon,” Funk said in an interview.

But while South Sudan’s future hinges on a contest between rainfall and evaporation, the country is way behind in trying to understand what might come next and how to defend itself.

South Sudan’s national meteorological department is supposed to provide early warnings as a way to prepare for and reduce the scale of disasters. But the meteorologists there have no instruments for measuring wind speed, a critical factor in making weather forecasts. Many of the computers in a crammed office at Juba’s airport are wrapped in dusty plastic, and employees said they focus mainly on tracking the hourly conditions for the planes landing and taking off. The office is supposed to issue daily public weather bulletins, but it does not; one employee explained that the pay is low and so is the motivation.

“So many challenges,” said Mojwok Ogawi Modo, who runs the department. “They are huge.”

The information at their hands comes mostly from elsewhere — including WFP, which tracks climate patterns, as well as a Kenya-based regional climate center, which provides reports forecasting three months in advance. The forecaster, citing the ongoing El Niño event, recently predicted “abundant rainfall” over almost all of East Africa between October and December, with more flooding for South Sudan.

Funk, who tracks oceanic temperatures as well, also expects a surge in rainfall in East Africa. Because the oceanic patterns are slow-moving, they are also predictable, he said, and they can be used to mitigate famines and food shocks. He works closely with governments in Ethiopia and Kenya. But in South Sudan, he doesn’t know who to call.

South Sudan has taken some recent steps to set up a functional early warning system for climate events, receiving U.N.-led trainings, and distributing 20 tablets to local officials for weather monitoring, but the initiative is still at the beginning stages. Musa, the climate director at South Sudan’s Environment Ministry, said a better national early warning system could give South Sudan autonomy, and help yield localized data. That could help with village-by-village decisions about what crops to plant. About whether to raise dikes.

About whether to stay or leave.

In Chotyiel, Reik said the town never hears from the government, though he did hear secondhand about a U.N. report predicting increasing rain in the second half of the year. Mostly, he said, people in the village rely on traditional methods to predict the weather.

They track bird behavior.

They listen for a frog species whose sound changes based on conditions.

And they look to the sky.

Nyaguey had only been in the water for a minute, grabbing the first bulbs, moving barefoot in the water, when a fisherman emerged in a wooden canoe.

“Do you happen to have any shoes?” she asked him. “Right now thorns are pricking my feet.”

He said he didn’t. He paused to talk, flies buzzing around the eight or nine fish in his boat, and Nyaguey noticed his catch.

“What about passing me one of those fish?” she asked.

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry. My children really have nothing to eat.”

But he did say that a richer patch of lilies were up ahead. The women, wading carefully through the water, followed his advice.

They arrived at an area with lily pads the size of dinner plates, surrounded by the desiccated trees, their branches collapsing into the water. The floodwaters here were slightly shallower, waist-high, but Nyaguey and the others worked from a crouch, keeping their arms below the water, fighting to break the apple-sized bulbs from the stems. Nyaguey had honed her technique. Snap. Into the bucket. Snap. Into the bucket.

The women had started close together, chatting a bit, but they fanned out over several hundred feet, each operating in silence, other than the dragonflies. Snap. Snap. They worked for an hour, then two. The day went from hot to overcast to windy. Snap. Snap. Nyaguey’s bucket, floating on the water, filled with the greenish bulbs, and she dragged it with her from one lily patch to the next.

She’d have more than 100 pounds by the time she was done.

Nyaguey said the load would be too heavy to transport on the muddy path back to town. So instead she’d wade back through the floodwaters, letting the bucket float behind her, trying not to get lost. But then the floodwaters would end and there’d still be another quarter-mile on foot.

By then, she’d have been at work for hours. Her feet would be shriveled. She’d be exhausted. She’d lug the lilies back anyway she could.

Then it would be time to cook dinner.

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