YUSUF BATIL, SOUTH SUDAN— South Sudan’s Upper Nile state is now home to more than 100,000 refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile state, where conflict has raged between government forces and insurgents for more than a year. The United Nations says that widespread problems of malnutrition and disease are slowly improving. But it fears that another influx, when heavy rains abate, could quickly undo gains as charities struggle to maintain services in remote and waterlogged refugee camps.
At a watering point in Yusuf Batil camp in South Sudan, some of the 35,000 residents make the daily trek to fill jerry cans for washing, cooking and cleaning.
To get about half the 20-liter ration recommended daily, they must trek through masses of sticky, sometimes ankle-deep mud.
Challenges abound as agencies ramp up
While fewer people are now suffering from malnutrition, many are still getting sick from diarrheal diseases and even hepatitis E - because of the human waste mixed into the unavoidable sludge.
George Okoth-Obbo, head of the Africa division for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], said the situation here is becoming more stable. But he also said relief agencies must continue to scale up operations in expectation of another influx of refugees.
“And as we know all that, it is very possible that once the rains stop, more people will be coming into the country and potentially into this camp," said Okoth-Obbo. "So it’s an imperative of not only stabilizing the situation as we have now, but indeed while doing that to be preparing for more as well.”
Food, security among chief concerns
The local leaders among the refugees say many families left older or weaker members behind, because they could not make the journey. Those family members, along with others trapped by conflict or rains, are expected to try to cross into South Sudan soon.
Refugee leader Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Fadul wants his people to stay close to the aid agencies - not just for services, but also for security.
“We are used to hearing gunshots in some of the corners of the camp over there, there, there and here, and we don’t know why,” he said.
At the monthly food distribution site, refugees pay a precious part of their grain ration to get their food transported by camel, since the rain makes the trek back to their tents too difficult.
Donors, international assistance sought
UNHCR says malnutrition has dropped from around 40 percent to 26 percent, with severe cases now affecting one in 10 people, especially children.
Stanlake Samkange, the East and Central Africa Director for the U.N's World Food Program [WFP], said the situation improved mainly due airdrops of food - a costly last resort - but could quickly worse again if more refugees arrive, and unless more funding is found.
“My biggest concern is that if this number increases significantly, then it will add pressure on our efforts, the efforts of UNHCR and other partners, and we will need the support and assistance of donors and the international community to do that,” said Samkange.
As the sun sets on the food-distribution site, the UNHCR remains concerned that finding $20 million now could mean “a matter of life or death” for some of these refugees, not to mention those still stuck in war-ravaged Blue Nile as food becomes even more scarce.