Humanitarian aid is not enough in South Sudan. Farmers also need help to tackle the climate crisis

This column is the opinion of Marwa Awad, a Canadian aid worker with the World Food Program in South Sudan. For more information on CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

This week was Africa Climate Week and experts came together to discuss how to respond to the cataclysmic effects of climate change.

Climate change affects us all, but some of the most vulnerable are in sub-Saharan Africa. For millions of people on the continent, extreme weather events like droughts, floods and major storms have become a feature of everyday life – like the common cold.

Much of the global humanitarian aid in Africa is focused on emergency assistance – putting out the fires of conflict and hunger – but more is needed for initiatives focused on climate adaptation. As a humanitarian worker, I realized that the problems plaguing vulnerable communities will not go away until climate adaptation comes to the fore. This means continuing emergency assistance that saves lives and prevents the scourge of famine, while building climate resilience.

Communities across the continent living in crisis and enduring climatic shocks such as scorched earth, flooded land, failed harvests and destroyed infrastructure are finding makeshift solutions to adapt to their changing climate.

The front lines of the climate crisis

In my work in South Sudan, I have witnessed the innovative spirit of people living on the front lines of the climate crisis and its potential to bring peace and development to the world’s youngest nation. Their efforts must be underpinned by consistent and predictable funding from governments and individuals seeking to mitigate the drastic impact of climate change on vulnerable populations.

South Sudan is warming twice the global rate and is one of the hardest hit places in the world by climate change. Since 2019, farming and pastoral communities have been grappling with persistent and devastating floods that have altered the shapes and characteristics of their lands.

The country’s wetlands – known as the Sudd – have expanded permanently into surrounding farmlands and pastures, drowning crops and leading to mass livestock deaths and massive internal displacement of people. Millions of people have been pushed into extreme starvation while tens of thousands struggle to survive in near-starvation conditions.

My frequent visits to flooded areas in the worst affected parts of South Sudan have made me realize one thing: floodwaters are not receding. At least not fast enough for the land to dry up, waterlogged soil to drain and displaced families to return to what remains of their homes and villages.

Billions of dollars have been invested to provide immediate and life-saving relief, but the onslaught of the climate crisis and ongoing sub-national conflicts have derailed development.

Farmer John Mabior tends to his rice harvest in the South Sudanese farming community of Tonj South. Small-scale farmers in the region have adapted to their changing climate by turning the floodplains engulfing their village into rice paddies. (World Food Program)

To unlock South Sudan’s future, donors must support small-scale farming systems and family farmers who live off the land. Even in contexts as complicated as South Sudan, these local investments are yielding positive results.

In Warrap State, smallholder farmers in Tonj South are adapting to climate change by turning the floodplains that engulf their village into rice paddies. With training from the World Food Program on best agronomic practices and by providing quality seeds, the community worked hard to build dykes to protect their land from flooding and dug pits to catch rainwater to securing access to water throughout the year.

For three consecutive years, and despite floods that engulfed other parts of South Sudan, the farming community of Tonj South grew their own food in sufficient quantities and satisfied hunger – a goal that most rural households would have struggling to achieve without livelihoods and resilience support.

One such farmer is John Mabior, who had almost abandoned his community and was planning to leave home. He has now more than doubled his harvest of sorghum, rice, cassava and beans, among other crops, and started his own business selling the surplus from his labor. His success inspired the once-disengaged young people in his community to follow his example. “We dreamed of leaving the village to go to a better place. But now I see that my future is here,” he told me.

Local solutions to local problems

Other examples of resilience include displaced women in Unity State, whose land was submerged for three years and who are now taking part in a local initiative to make cooking fuel from water hyacinths as a safe and clean alternative to charcoal and firewood.

Putting South Sudanese on a path to early recovery is possible if we prioritize small-scale farmers who find local solutions to local problems. The more these grassroots initiatives take root across the country, the easier it will be to bring peace and prosperity to the world’s youngest nation. And beyond South Sudan, these are the kinds of initiatives that will limit both the impacts of climate change, and the ensuing climate migration, worldwide.

Those seeking to help the people of South Sudan overcome the challenges they face due to their warming climate – now the norm for the foreseeable future – can do so by supporting initiatives that build resilience to climate shocks. This is the surest way for the people of South Sudan to take ownership of their future and realize their aspirations down the line.

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