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Waiting for the boats to return to Akobo

Displaced southern Sudanese women and children of Jikany Nuer in a village outside Nasir town in Upper Nile state, who fled retaliatory attacks following a 12 June raid on a UN food aid convoy on the Sobat river
Displaced Jikany Nuer women and children in a village outside Nasir town, Upper Nile State, South Sudan (June 2009) (Peter Martell/IRIN)

A few months ago, it was possible to buy rice, sugar and some vegetables from the main market in Akobo town, Jonglei State in Southern Sudan. For the past few weeks, however, the food stalls have been empty.

“There used to be food in the market – for those who could afford to buy it,” Akobo County information officer John Ter said. “Since June, when the river was blocked, nothing has come through.”

The traders used to bring merchandise down the Sobat and Pibor rivers, either from Malakal in neighbouring Upper Nile State or from Ethiopia.

The food situation in Akobo is fragile, and the river a key supply route. A nutrition survey conducted by Save the Children between November 2008 and March 2009 found a global acute malnutrition rate of 20.2 percent, a severe acute malnutrition rate of 5.5 percent and moderate malnutrition prevalence of 14.7 percent. The survey was based on weight for height measurements and/or oedema.

“These data indicate an extraordinarily severe situation that more than ever threatens the survival of children in the assessed areas,” Bismarck Swangin, communications officer in Southern Sudan for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said.

“The data also points to general low levels of nutrition in most of Jonglei and Bahr El Ghazal areas [which] are some of the most under-served in terms of social services, due to conflict, flooding and drought.”


The river was blocked after a 12 June attack by armed Jikany Nuer men on a flotilla of 31 boats, including 27 carrying relief food for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), near Nassir in neighbouring Upper Nile State.

Thuom Mum, Upper Nile state information minister, said about 40 people died in the fighting, which also cut off food supplies to about 19,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Akobo.

Locals told IRIN on 5 July that the attack was an act of revenge, intended to deny supplies to the Lou Nuer for previous attacks against them. It was especially severe because it came at a time when parts of Akobo had endured months without rain and locals could not farm.

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Photo: ReliefWeb

Late rains

The rains should have started in May, but the eastern parts of Akobo County, including the town, remain dry. Aid workers worry that half the 86,000 population of the county could face serious food shortages if the rains fail completely.

“It is July and we should be receiving some rains, but there is none,” David Tolu Lemiso, health project manager at the NGO Nile Hope Development Foundation (NHDF), said. “Some of the IDPs are already malnourished. And even if the rains came, they have no seeds to plant at the moment.”

The key source of food for both IDPs and host communities in Akobo town and surrounding villages is rations delivered by WFP planes. “Should the plane fail to come for a week, people here will be in trouble,” Gabriel Ajak of WFP said.

Supervising the delivery of sorghum and peas by Buffalo transport plane on 5 July in Akobo, he added: “The situation here will get worse when rains start - unless the river is re-opened soon.”

WFP is also using the MI-26 helicopter, which can deliver 10MT per flight – twice as much as the Buffalo. Should the rains start, however, the chopper will find it hard to fly. The Buffalo, on the other hand, would find it hard to land in Akobo because the airstrip would become too muddy.

Even then, delivering food by plane is very expensive. According to WFP spokesperson Amorcecille Almagro, the agency would prefer to deliver the food by river, given the poor roads and fragile security

“At the moment, we only eat after the plane has landed,” Deng Jal, who was displaced in a cattle raid by armed Murle men on villages in Nyandit in April, said. “Even then, the food is much less than when it came by river.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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