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Children walk along a canal in Bor.  The city is the scene of repeated flooding, a phenomenon accentuated by climate change.

On this clay road that the rain has transformed into an ice rink, the drivers struggle to control the trajectory of their vehicle. The pedestrians, them, removed their sandals and advance with precaution while trying to keep the balance. Some zigzag, others hesitate. Below, the buildings lie in greenish water. Once again this year, entire swathes of Bor, a town in South Sudan located 200 km north of Juba, on the east bank of the White Nile, are in danger of drowning.

For two years, the floods, usual in the region, have been more and more devastating. By 2020, the capital of the state of Jonglei had been completely submerged. And the whole province is suffering from the expansion of the Sudd, that swampy immensity which spreads over the floodplain of the Nile during the rainy season and increasingly erodes habitable land.

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Since May, according to the UN, 426,000 people have been affected by flooding in the country, including 160,000 in northern Jonglei state and 180,000 in neighboring Unity state. The majority of those displaced from previous floods have still not returned to their homes. Nearly 200,000 people are piling up in the Mingkaman and Mangalla camps, but also in the town of Bor itself, awaiting an increasingly hypothetical return to their lands along the Nile.

“The river has conquered”

In Bor, the dike built in the emergency seems for the moment to resist the new flood of the river. It is a mound partially covered with grass that winds from the north to the south of the city. But it is already leaking at several points and blocking the flow of rainwater. It is they, more than the river, that worries Mary Achol. “We are fed up with this water that does not drain!” It forces us to rent a generator and a pump for 10,000 pounds [environ 19 euros] as soon as it rains “, storm the fifty-year-old, sitting in the courtyard of her house located along the dike, where fishing families live.

On the other side, streaming at the foot of the rare sorghum plants still alive, the level of the river clearly overlooks that of the city. The Nile conquered the lands where “We were cultivating sukuma wiki [un genre de chou vert], that we were selling on the market, but water covered all our vegetable gardens ”, laments Mary Achol. In 2020, when “The river has conquered”, she and her relatives had found refuge at Marol Market, Bor’s main market. Luckier than other city dwellers still displaced within the city, she was able to return home after the recession. But the family is not immune to a hasty departure. “If we have to be relocated, it will be far from here, far from our land, and we have no cattle. What are we going to do if we can no longer live here and fish? “, she asks herself.

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To avoid a new disaster, a fierce fight against water is organized at the level of the State. With the means at hand. “People build dikes and live inside: they need pumps, sandbags, food to continue working”, observes Diing Akol, head of the Flood Management Committee for Jonglei, formed at the end of July. So far, 55,000 sandbags as well as food for the workforce have been pledged by UN agencies. Some 7,000 pumps and generators were also purchased by the national authorities, as were seven very large pumps for Bor town and Fangak and Twic East counties.

Elijah Mabior Bol, Minister of the State of Jonglei in charge of public facilities, inspects the dike in Bor.

North of Bor, on a muddy artery leading to the Nile, an excavator digs a channel to bring stagnant water to the pump recently installed on the dike. ” It going “, rejoices Elijah Mabior Bol, Minister of the State of Jonglei in charge of public facilities. On this sunny Sunday morning, this trained engineer is conducting an inspection of the dike, which is only accessible on foot through expanses of standing water. After rolling up his pants, the minister tries to ease tensions between residents “Responsible for protecting the dike” and those responsible for wildlife protection. The day before, a hippopotamus was shot because it had climbed the dike and risked damaging it.

But the situation is much more worrying in the south of the city, where a leak lets water enter the treatment plant. Almost a thousand sandbags are needed to strengthen this segment. And there is urgency.

Agro-pastoral conflicts

So goes the relentless struggle against water. An old struggle, fought from generation to generation. “Bor comes from the word ‘Abor’, which means ‘flood’ in Dinka. Bor is “the flooded area”. Our ancestors named it that way because there were repeated floods ”, tell Thon Adior and Isaïa Jokuch, traditional leaders. “But our local techniques for building dikes are no longer sufficient”, they admit.

It must be said that the Nile shattered its record of 1962 (11.60 m), a year of historic and devastating floods, reaching 14.12 m in October 2020 in Juba, the country’s capital. Authorities sounded the alarm again on September 25 after measuring a rapid rise in the Nile to an all-time high of 14.24 m, raising fears of another wave of flooding.

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A flooded street in Bor, in September 2021.

“Our peoples are shepherds fighting for access to pastures which disappear under water: this creates social problems”, underlines Elijah Mabior Bol. The herds had to exile en masse to the lands of the region of Equatoria (south), where agro-pastoral conflicts are constant. “In 2010, a census estimated the number of cattle in Jonglei at 31 million. Today, these beasts are not here! “regrets the minister. To bring them back, several avenues are being studied: drain the flooded lands, build a dam south of Juba to control the flow of the Nile, build a permanent dike over a length of 185 km … Dredging of the river as well as the construction of a canal should also be considered, considers Elijah Mabior Bol.

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South Sudan is one of the fastest warming countries in the world. “The temperatures of the 2000s were 2 ° C higher than those of the 1970s”, according to a report from the Ministry of the Environment dating from 2018, addressed to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). “Climate change will cause more and more droughts and floods, which are becoming more and more severe”, warned the report, pointing out that “56% of the country’s population is vulnerable to these shocks.” A disruption that adds to the political tensions that have ravaged the youngest state in the world since its independence in July 2011.

To cope, some have already had to abandon the pastoral way of life of their ancestors. Elizabeth Alek Aluong, for example, turned to the fish trade. “All of my family’s cattle were lost or stolen in the 1990s due to the war [avec le Soudan] “, she testifies. With her associates in the Women Fishing Group of Bor, she runs a well-stocked stand a few steps from the port, where large braids of very fragrant dried fish are exhibited. After a customer has bought a whole wheelbarrow of it, the saleswoman confides: “Taking care of the cows, we may come back to that one day. But not while there is this crisis and these floods. We cling to this work, which allows us to eat and to put our children in school. “

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