Responding to Floods in Upper Nile, Sudan


August 7, 2007

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    Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Garang's family awoke in the middle of the night to knee-deep water in their home. This tent is now their home until at least October. Photo: Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A submerged village in northern Upper Nile. Photo: Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps hired heavy earth-moving machinery to dig drainage canals. Photo: Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps

The water arrived at night, quietly and suddenly to Garang's home along the Kurachai River. He and his family saw no signs of danger when they went to bed that night in mid-July. But, awakened in the darkness by a cacophony of bleating goats and screaming neighbors, Garang stepped out of bed into knee-deep water - into the flood that was surging into their village.

Garang's family is now among the estimated 365,000 people affected by heavy flooding in central Sudan. The floods are expected to worsen, and could eventually endanger the lives and livelihoods of one million people, according to the Goverment of Sudan.

Mercy Corps is providing relief to affected families in Upper Nile State, one of five states hit hardest by four weeks of torrential rain, according to an August 6 report from the United Nations. Our efforts include opening a mobile health camp, handing out food and survival kits to displaced families, and employing local workers to dig canals to drain water away from villages in peril.

Resources will also help prepare for a recovery that will require rebuilding homes, reopening markets, restocking livestock and mitigating the effects of an abbreviated harvest. Mercy Corps continues to monitor flooding in other parts of Sudan, both around the capital of Khartoum and further south, where the agency operates economic-development programs. With rains expected to remain heavier than normal through August, it's anticipated that more people will be affected by the deluge.

Heavy rains aren't unusual this time of year in Upper Nile, a border state in southern Sudan. They usually start in June and end in October, and the restricted mobility, destroyed houses, and increased malaria cases that accompany the wet season are considered only minor inconveniences.

This year has been different. First and foremost, the Kurachia River — a desiccated channel during dry season — swelled a hundredfold. Its volume rivaled the nearby Nile, its usual destination. Since the river rarely grows much, even at the height of the rainy season, villagers along its banks were caught unaware by its sudden ferocity and volume. In fact, most people remember only one instance of flooding along the Kurachia, about 14 years ago, and it displaced only about 100 families.

This year, more than 2,000 households in El Sawary and Gerborona villages found themselves scrambling for their lives as the river burst its banks in the middle of the night. In a matter of hours, these families had formed a displaced persons camp without food, water, sanitation or shelter. Farther downstream, Donglei, a village of 70 families, had been completely swept away.

Compounding the problem in Renk, the largest town in northern Upper Nile, was a buildup of silt that clogged culverts meant to divert water underneath a new road connecting the town with Khartoum. That forced more than 300 families from four villages east of the road whose homes were swallowed up by water.

Local government officials turned to Mercy Corps for help. The agency has been working in Upper Nile State for over a year, helping residents recover from a 21-year civil war that ripped apart communities and destroyed much of what little infrastructure there was in the area.

To mitigate the flood damage, Mercy Corps hired heavy earth-moving machinery from Kosti, a town about 200 kilometers away. Workers dug drainage trenches along the road to the capital so that floodwater could flow into the River Nile. To unblock the culverts, Mercy Corps bought hand tools for government-provided laborers. Within 12 hours, the water had drained from the four villages east of the tarmac, allowing resettlement and clean-up activities to begin.

In the days that followed, Mercy Corps:

  • Distributed 2,000 survival kits containing water containers, plastic sheeting for shelter, mosquito nets, cooking pans, and other essential items provided by UN agencies;
  • Handed out more than 100 sacks of cereal grains to families who remained in the flooded-out village of Donglei;
  • Opened a mobile clinic in one of two newly formed displacement camps, stocked with UNICEF-purchased drugs and staffed by doctors and nurses from a local non-profit organization;
  • Trucked chlorinated water into the camps;
  • and

  • Constructed latrines in the camps and outside homes to prevent outbreaks of disease.

The rains have continued into early August, but the Kurachia River's banks have receded significantly. County officials, however, are proceeding cautiously: they've prohibited families who live closest to the river from resettling because more flooding is expected this month.

Garang expects he and his family to remain at the camp for people displaced by the floods until October. For now, his family has what they need to live. They were among the few families that received tents from the government. Mercy Corps provides health services and trucks in drinking water, but those shipments which will soon be replaced by an emergency water treatment system in each camp built by Medair, a Swiss-based relief organization, and funded by UNICEF. The UN's World Food Program has distributed 15 days' worth of food.

Once the waters subside, recovery efforts will entail more than simply rebuilding homes.