• By Kwabena Frimpong Nyarko

Imagine the scenario where 90% of a region comparable to the size of the Netherlands is flooded for years. This sounds like something out of a future climate change impact scenario analysis, right? Unfortunately, for the people of the Unity State in South Sudan, this has been the reality since 2021. South Sudan, which has suffered civil wars for most of its brief history is also no stranger to flooding. However, the current flood has been exceptional in terms of scale, duration and intensity. The flood depth continued to rise even during the dry seasons. Puzzling, isn’t it? 

Almost every main road in Unity State is now submerged but people are still moving. They wade through the water while some also swim. The luckier ones move around by canoes. Besides this, most people here live in huts built in a traditional style which cannot withstand long periods of flooding. Flood-impacted communities in Unity State generally sought refuge in Bentiu, the state capital which is home to over 100,000 IDPs. But now the flood is there. Bentiu has now turned into an island surrounded by flood waters which are shielded by dikes. In this blog, I share insights from fieldwork I conducted in Bentiu. The study was conducted through a collaboration between the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Deltares, the Netherlands Entreprise Agency (of the Dutch government) and Aquaverum. 

What Connection to Climate Change Can Be Drawn? 

Climate assessment by Deltares initially revealed a surprising trend - a decreasing trend in total annual rainfall over the relevant catchment. If that is the case, why then is flooding getting worse in Bentiu? Remarkably, we found that the role of climate change is higher intense rainfall over shorter periods causing greater surface run-off. This led to the unprecedented climate displacement in Bentiu. 

What Climate Mobility Means to The Youth of Bentiu? 

When we talk about climate change, for the youth in Bentiu, we are not just discussing an environmental issue. Rather, we are talking about a challenge that affects their psychological, social and educational well-being. The unusual flood and displacements worsened feelings of insecurity and hopelessness among young people in the area. In Bentiu, many individuals I spoke to expressed uncertainty about Bentiu’s ability to withstand being totally submerged. This particularly made it difficult for young people seeking refuge in Bentiu to make long-term plans and goals in Bentiu. It is key to note that not many human mobility options exists considering that nearby areas to Bentiu such as other parts of South Sudan, Sudan, and Ethiopia are largely impoverished and face severe environmental and political conditions. Thus, many youths do not consider them as attractive destinations. 

Due to this crisis in Bentiu, youth are now taking on new roles. As family structures and livelihoods shift due to floods and displacement, young people, often with injured or deceased parents, dedicate considerable time to tasks such as gathering reeds for hut construction and supporting flood defense. This replaces school attendance. This shift has worsened their access to education. It should be noted that education access was extremely low in Bentiu even prior to the floods. However, limited space and teachers in Bentiu schools amidst the sudden displacement of over 100,000 people to Bentiu further contribute to the scarcity of educational support for young people. 

What Does The Future Hold for The Youths of Bentiu? 

“Anything can happen. You can die at any time not just because of the floods but also the political conditions. That is why in over here, our families pressure us to marry early and give birth so that our family will remain in case anything happens to us” (A young native of Bentiu, 2023) 

Several youths I engaged were pessimistic about the future in Bentiu. That said, the future is uncertain. With a changing climate and limited local data, forecasting flooding patterns for Bentiu is challenging, and this means greater uncertainty about the impacts of flooding on human mobility. This is because Bentiu’s hydrology is a chronologically understudied field. The growing uncertainty emphasises the importance of increasing the agency of youths and being more resilient. What then can be done to achieve this? Ideally, youths should have the freedom to choose whether to stay or move in the context of climate change. Unfortunately, in Bentiu, many lack the means for migration, which can be a vital climate adaptation tool. It is key to extend support to those who aspire to leave but find themselves constrained by financial, human, and social limitations. Focused initiatives may include providing information of safer migration destinations and vocational training. Considering the extremely low educational opportunities in Bentiu, motivating and training young individuals to leverage scholarships opportunities, both within and outside South Sudan, emerges as a strategic move. This not only broaden their access to opportunities and services in potential destinations but also mitigate the negative outcomes associated with the perilous journeys many face due to flooding in Bentiu. 

Policies such as planned relocation of entire populations may not be effective in this context considering  the local political tensions and socio-economic constraints. Instead, targeting adaptation in situ and therefore assisting people to remain in more sustainable conditions is more plausible. Such sustainable solutions include the following: first, flood response should prevent the case of solving a problem in one location while creating new problems elsewhere. Considering this, major interventions such as dredging in the physical downstream should be avoided as much as possible or approached with caution. This way, we can work with nature instead of against it. Lastly, incorporating nature-based solutions and preparing the local communities for an adaptive "living with water" approach are some of the ways to be more resilient. 

FrimpongAbout the author:

Kwabena Frimpong Nyarko is a researcher with international experience in addressing climate change, water security, disaster risk reduction (floods and droughts) and migration. Kwabena originally comes from Ghana but he currently lives in the Netherlands where he did his graduate studies in MSc Urban Environmental Management at Wageningen University. In addition to the project in Bentiu which this article is based on, Kwabena has also recently worked on the climate-migration nexus with Deltares in The Netherlands to support the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative.


This article is part of the IOM Blog Series: Youth Voices on Migration, Environment and Climate Change

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