"If I Go, Who Will Feed My Children?"

As families flee flood waters in South Sudan, a father stays behind to ensure his children have enough to eat.

The floods began in July 2020. The waters were higher than many people could remember – local officials estimated that the floods were the worst they had seen in more than fifty years.

In Old Fangak, an isolated town in northern South Sudan, people have been struggling to survive ever since. More than six months later, the waters have not receded and the rainy season has arrived again – months earlier than usual.

Families escaped rising waters and flooded homes, fleeing to the few highlands in this area of South Sudan. Many were in desperate search for food.

Gai Yor, a fisherman, misses his family dearly, but has little choice but to stay away. Hunger is growing, and food is hard to come by. Gai has been living in a small, floating shelter for two and a half months, surrounded by grass and water.

"I have been here alone because my wife took our children to a highland to keep them away from the water."

For as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but grass and glistening water. The market in Old Fangak sits on one of few highlands that are still dry, but it can only be reached by canoe. Gai's family depends on his fishing: he has to catch enough to eat at least once a day and the rest is sold to buy more food. Like Gai, other men stay in the mosquito-infested, flooded areas where they can find fish.

"This flood is everywhere. Everywhere is like this except in the highland of Old Fangak. But if I go to Old Fangak, who will feed my children?"

Gai Yor, a fisherman, in front of the floating shelter he has been living in for months since the floods overtook his family home.

Photo: Peter Caton
for Action Against Hunger,
South Sudan

The sense of abandonment spreads through the town where families have been scattered, separated by the floods and the need to get some food. Many markets, which used to be full of life and commerce, have been destroyed in the floods. Houses lie buried underneath the waters.

Near Gai’s home, there used to be a market, but it has been submerged. The houses surrounding Gai's were abandoned by his neighbors who fled to find refuge.

Underneath the plastic sheet that shields Gai from the heat and wind, lies a thick carpet of dry grass. Mounted over tree trunks, layer upon layer of grass form a small island over water. Across from it stands Gai's collapsed house, a constant reminder of everything he has lost.

"The dike broke at night when everyone was sleeping. When it broke, I heard screaming people and I woke up to realize what had happened. We took one person and put them across where the dike broke, while the rest of us collected mud and repaired it as quickly as we could."

For more than two months, Gai struggled day and night to try to repair the dike that guarded his home.

"When I realized that a dike would not survive, I made another dike behind it, and then another, and another. More than six dikes are here, all now underwater."

Community members work to rebuild their village's dikes.

Photo: Peter Caton
for Action Against Hunger,
South Sudan

The water has increased so much that there is no visible trace of the dikes Gai built. Only dead maize crops stick out of the water.

"When the floods began, we still had some maize, but as of now all maize, okra, and sorghum are damaged. This flood came without notice, it destroyed our crops. We have been waiting for a year for these crops to feed us."

Next to Gai's grass island stands a couple of mounted sticks that are used to dry strings of fish. Every day, Gai must capture enough fish before sunset to be able to travel on his canoe to deliver the fish to his wife and six children, who have not yet eaten that day.

Living in the middle of an isolated flooded area and away from his family is very difficult.

"As you see me right now, my ears are hurting, my joints are paining me, but what hurts the most is the hunger of my children, they have nothing to eat. That's the worst suffering caused by this flood. At night, things don't get easier. The mosquitoes swarm after dark and sometimes hippopotamus come nearby which is really frightening."

Gai was not the only one who was forced to choose between staying together as a family or separating for survival. Since the floods began last summer, hunger has been steadily increasing and any prospects for food dwindle each day the flood waters do not recede. Nothing can be cultivated in flooded land.

Many families try whatever they can to save their home and everything in it from the waters. Many people who have lost their homes sleep on the ground, in the open, without any protection from the weather, mosquitoes, or wild animals. There is no place to migrate to safety either – the flood waters surround them for miles.

"This is my home, I don't want to leave my home behind. I don't want to stay in someone else's home and burden them with taking care of us. I want to stay in my home while my children can stay in the highland safely. By staying here, at least I get some fish that I can take to my children," says Gai.

"This suffering is so hard, we are now only looking to God for help."

Action Against Hunger’s Response

In Paguir and the surrounding areas, Action Against Hunger prevents and treats malnutrition, provides health care, and improves access to clean water, safe sanitation, and good hygiene. To help families displaced by the floods, we have launched an emergency response to provide food assistance, fishing kits, and seeds with support from the European Union.  

Action Against Hunger is the world’s hunger specialist and leader in a global movement that aims to end life-threatening hunger for good within our lifetimes. For more than 40 years, the humanitarian and development organization has been on the front lines, treating and preventing hunger across nearly 50 countries. It served more than 17 million people in 2019 alone.