Renewed fighting threatens humanitarian efforts

South Sudan

November 4, 2014

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  • A family wades through flood waters that stood for months during the rainy season at the Bentiu U.N. base where more than 45,000 people have sought safety from South Sudan's ten-month conflict. Photos: Sanjay Joshi/Mercy Corps

Fierce fighting erupted in Bentiu last week, the oil-rich capital of Unity State in the north of South Sudan.

Mercy Corps is providing life-sustaining water and sanitation services for more than 45,000 people who’ve sought safety and shelter from the nearly yearlong conflict at the U.N. peacekeeping base on the outskirts of Bentiu.

Those efforts — as well as the safe learning spaces we support for children to continue their education — were temporarily disrupted during the height of the violence.

Some of our staff were forced to take shelter in U.N. bomb shelters to escape intense gunfire and shelling. Meanwhile, our national team members living and working in the camp continued services as best they could during lulls in the fighting. They kept water points functional, maintained chlorination to keep the supply drinkable, and continued latrine cleaning and garbage collection.

Displaced themselves, they were determined to keep helping their community as much as possible without jeopardizing their safety or getting caught in the crossfire.

Last week’s fighting was another telling sign that violence may once again escalate in South Sudan’s ten-month conflict, now that the rains are ending and soldiers can once again move more freely.

The dry season should be a relief. Pumps began to decrease the stagnant flood water that people had been living in for months in the camp. Drier dirt roads are becoming passable and airstrips operational, allowing increased transport of essential supplies to families who have fled to remote areas.

The displacement sites in the U.N. base were not designed to shelter this many people for so long. We must work to add as many new latrines and water points as possible during the dry season to ensure families' health and safety.

It is critical that we maximize our humanitarian response during this narrow window of time before the rains return in May. We need to construct more latrines to meet emergency standards and drill more water points to meet the ongoing needs at the Bentiu displacement sites, which were not designed to shelter so many people for this long. We also need to preposition supplies while teams can be more mobile during the dry season.

But renewed fighting — despite ongoing peace talks and several ineffective ceasefires — puts all of these lifesaving activities, and the people who depend on us, in jeopardy.

Since South Sudan’s government splintered and violence broke out last December, the widespread conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and forced more than 1.8 million people from their homes. Famine was averted this year, but 1.5 million people are still facing crisis levels of hunger that could grow worse by early 2015.

Mercy Corps is delivering food and economic assistance to more than 85,000 people in remote areas of South Sudan, in addition to our work providing water and education for children in the Bentiu sites.

All of those activities have resumed since the situation has calmed for now in Bentiu. We’re grateful all of our staff are safe and accounted for after their brave efforts to continue working despite the danger.

But more ongoing fighting will only increase displacement and hunger — and continue to hamper the safe and fast delivery of humanitarian assistance to so many people in need. The only solution to avert tragedy, save lives and continue our work is for all parties to the conflict to agree to a lasting peace.

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