After what seemed like a slow start to a mild rainy season, the rain and all the chaos it entails came to Bentiu’s Protection of Civilians (POC) camp on Friday.
We’d been expecting the rainy season for a while, but we’d begun to hope we might get off light. Just last week, a colleague asked: “Is it just me, or is this rainy season really not that rainy?”
About an hour later, a light rain started, gained power, eased off, then flickered between drizzle and torrents until this morning. Bentiu is a place where rainstorms can make you feel like you might be blown into the bush.
As we all emerged from our tents and containers into a mud bath, we joked that our colleague’s remark had brought on the rain. We could see from the state of our own living area that the POC zone within the same compound would be in very poor condition.
We have known for a long time that the combination of rains and inadequate infrastructure would result in extremely bad living and sanitation conditions in the camp come the full onset of the rainy season. Indeed, this is something that Concern’s Water and Sanitation team and their colleagues in other organizations have been working on while still trying to provide basic services to the streams of people that seemed to just keep coming and coming.
However, it’s still difficult to be confronted with the grim predictions come to pass.
My colleagues and I pushed, slid and dragged our way along what was left of the access road to the main camp area. Once a single POC point of about 6,000 people, in the space of less than four months, Bentiu POC has become a sprawling interim town of more than 40,000 spread out among five sub-POCs. We reached the entrance gate that leads to POC 2, 3, 4 and 5. A long muddy road stretches through a bustling makeshift market that usually is alive with music, ten different kinds at once pumped out through tinny sound systems powered by spluttering generators that people managed to take with them when they fled.
When we reached the market, the music wasn’t assaulting us like usual, and the entire place was essentially a pond. A sewage pond, really, due both the rainfall and the overflow of makeshift drainage channels separating the market stalls from people’s dwellings. It was still raining and heavily overcast. The soil had turned in to a grey mud that either sucks your shoes off or sends you sliding around in all directions. Journeys on foot that normally take a couple of minutes were taking 30 minutes. There was no question of trying to use a vehicle.
In spite of what can only be described as a catastrophic scene, some traders were trying to set up stalls. In little islands of dry ground, the tea ladies had set up shop and people sat their having their morning cup, prosaically surveying the scene. Others moved down though the market, trying to make their way to the comparatively dry land of POC 5.
We continued on. Here in Bentiu, people have built shelters similar to what they build at home, so it looks very different from what you might normally imagine a camp to look like. There are no neat rows of tents. Just row upon row, and cluster upon cluster, of traditional huts capped with plastic tarps provided by the UN.
Along the main market road route, almost every structure we saw seemed to be flooded. We reached the turnoff point to one of the boreholes that Concern manages. The area was so flooded we couldn’t get through. We continued towards our next borehole and realized we needed to shut down its generator as it was about to be submerged by the flood. Thankfully, we managed to get both boreholes up and running again. Between them, they supply just over 140,000 liters of clean water a day to the community.
I bumped in to Peter, Concern’s Hygiene Promotion Officer who lives in the POC, having fled Bentiu town earlier this year. He took me further in to homes, including his own, which was flooded though only minimally since he raised his floor with sand that Concern provided to 1,300 households. We have a contract to provide this support to several thousand more households but have not been able to get it going due to rains and fighting which has prevented movement of trucks.
Concern worked with others on trying to figure out how to drain the camps but the sheer volume of water meant it was not an immediate option. The surrounding area is so flat and flooded that it is difficult to know where drainage points could be set.
Our next focus was on finding an area that had not been flooded so we could move people and give them somewhere dry to sleep. The aid agencies worked together on this, but the difficulty in moving around in the wet conditions meant that by the time the availability of dry land and tent structures had been identified, it was too late in the day to begin constructing large communal sleeping shelters with the tents, tarps and bamboo we identified. Over the weekend, Concern was on site with others erecting communal shelters. We also started distributing buckets to people to clear the flood.
It’s woefully inadequate compared to what people need, but the best start we can make. We keep pushing, along with our colleagues in other humanitarian agencies, to get the machinery and manpower we need to provide a more viable solution. Not to mention looking to what we can do to prevent fresh devastation when the next big rain arrives.
By the time we reached the main market strip at day’s end, the music was back on, the stalls were up and running and people stood, sat, walked in the water like it wasn’t even there.
There’s not much time to stop and feel too sorry for yourself when you’re a resident of Bentiu POC.
Emma Flaherty is area co-ordinator for Concern Worldwide U.S. in Unity State, South Sudan