For families in famine, a better life starts with water

South Sudan

May 1, 2017

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  • A water pump fixed by Mercy Corps, provides water to people in the Koch region of South Sudan, where there is limited access to clean water and an elevated risk of famine happening in the next few months. All photos: Mercy Corps team

Once full of thriving communities with active markets, the county of Koch in South Sudan has become battered by conflict and displacement.

Since 2013, thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and livelihoods in search of safety in surrounding areas, including into the swamplands. For those who stayed — or for the few who have returned — all that is left are burned shelters, looted crops and cattle, and roads, markets and schools destroyed by war.

Even worse, the entire area is now threatened by famine. Learn more about the current famine crisis here ▸

With disease running rampant and food scarce, Mercy Corps is on the ground in South Sudan to address urgent needs and help build out infrastructure for a stronger tomorrow.

In temperatures of more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and with dust that sometimes covers the sky, our teams have been working to repair boreholes: deep, narrow wells that pump water to the surface and are integral to community survival.

'We are left with nothing'

When the Mercy Corps team arrived in Koch in March, they immediately saw the vast needs: schoolchildren sitting in the baking sun, families sleeping on empty food sacks, and in the market, nothing to buy. There were no supplies and no grains — just small, handmade bags of sugar.

In conflict like this, it is women, children and the elderly who suffer most.

“We are left with nothing,” said one woman, 23, who has three children. “I don’t know how I will keep my children alive.”

Left: A woman carries a jerrycan filled with water on her head in the Koch region of South Sudan. Right: A woman, Nyaluak, collects water from a swamp. A community in Rier has reported rampant communal diseases due to the lack of clean water.

Travel is difficult in South Sudan, not only because of the lack of roads, but also because of security concerns amidst an ongoing war. To reach communities in Koch, our team journeyed partway by helicopter and then walked two to three hours to various villages.

“At the time of our visit, you could read on people’s faces how much pain they were in because they are so hungry,” said Tefera Habteyes, Mercy Corps Program Manager for water supply, sanitation and hygiene.

When our team travels to these inaccessible villages, they walk for hours and sleep in basic tents. But the team, Habteyes says, is mostly from South Sudan and is highly motivated to help their fellow South Sudanese.

A stronger community, together

Mercy Corps was the first organization to do major repairs here, drawing from our extensive experience providing water to tens of thousands of people in the Bentiu Protection of Civilians camp, also in South Sudan.

Initially the team planned to repair eight boreholes in Koch, with each serving 500 people. They analyzed the level of damage, provided tools, materials and technical support, and worked with the communities to make repairs. In the end, the team repaired a total of 11 of these water pumps, restoring access to water to over 5,500 people in 10 days.

Left: The Mercy Corps team and local community members work to fix the pump. Right: A child enjoys fresh water from the new pump.

When community members saw the boreholes fixed, they rushed to fill up their jerrycans and containers. The community told our team that our help would reduce the amount of movement within their families in search for water, and would keep them and their children safer. If it was not wartime, the community said they would have cooked a goat for our team, which is a common way to celebrate in South Sudan.

Now, with water restored, Mercy Corps can focus on ensuring that the water continues to be safe to drink and use. Cholera outbreaks in particular are a concern as the rainy season begins to arrive in the country.

Over the next few months, Mercy Corps will continue to support the people of Koch, conducting rigorous water testing and expanding our work to include the provision of latrines, hygiene promotion, and response planning for disease outbreaks.

How you can help:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more emergency relief for families facing famine and others in crisis around the world.
  • Sign the petition. Tell Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of livesaving assistance — including those affected by famine. We must continue to support them.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to post the infographic and spread the word about the millions who need us.