In January 2011 Need to Know sent reporter George Lerner to southern Sudan to report on one former refugee’s efforts to help rebuild his homeland in anticipation of a vote for independence. Salva Dut, one of the “Lost Boys” (a name given to the more than 20,000 children displaced by warfare in Sudan since 1983) returned from the United States to vote in an election which led to independence and stayed to supply much-needed freshwater to the area. (View the original report.)
George Lerner gives us an update on Salva Dut and South Sudan.
In South Sudan, one of the poorest countries on earth, the search for clean water comes at a rising cost.
Two years ago, on the eve of a historic referendum on independence, Need to Know visited Salva Dut, who runs an organization that drills wells for remote communities. Dut had been among the overwhelming majority of South Sudanese citizens who voted to separate from Sudan after decades of civil war.
Now, two years later, Salva Dut has seen higher prices for necessary goods and the outbreak of protests in his home base of Wau, some 300 miles (as crow flies) 450 miles (by road) from South Sudan’s capital of Juba. But these setbacks are worth it, Dut said, because it will take time to realize the fruits of independence.
“People are hopeful,” he said. “Someday things will change.”
Dut was one of South Sudan’s “lost boys,” separated from their families during the civil war. Coming to the United States as a refugee, he settled in Rochester, N.Y, before returning in 2005 to his homeland to help rebuild.
For Dut, one change since independence is in his organization itself. Founded as “Water for Sudan,” Dut changed the name to “Water for South Sudan.”
“We like to be identified as South Sudanese,” he said. “We are proud of that.”
Since separation, South Sudan has seen its relationship with Sudan roiled by rebel conflicts on both sides of the border. Human rights groups accuse Sudan’s government in Khartoum of indiscriminate bombing and shelling in South Kordofan and Blue Nile state, regions that remained part of Sudan when South Sudan broke away. Some 200,000 refugees have poured into South Sudan from the conflict zones.
In economic terms, Juba and Khartoum have hit an impasse over their key export: oil. While most of the oil reserves are in the south, the pipelines and oil infrastructure flow north. A disagreement over how to distribute the oil revenues shut down production in January 2012, denying South Sudan funds that comprise nearly its entire governmental budget. An accord to restore the flow of oil has been delayed over security issues.
For Salva Dut, the geopolitical tension has been borne out in a rising cost of goods. Austerity measures are in place, and the border with Sudan, across which products used to flow, has been closed. The most significant impact comes with the higher price of diesel fuel, essential to power Water for South Sudan’s drilling rig.
“There’s another war, a cold war, an economic war,” Dut said. “Before, we used to get a lot from the North. Now the only way is through Uganda.”
The transition to a democratic, independent south hasn’t been easy, even in what had been a relatively peaceful place like Wau, the second largest city in South Sudan. Located on a bluff over a river, Wau boasts a university and a large cathedral, and sits on the crossroads of a vast region of diverse ethnic groups.
Protests broke out in Wau in early December 2012 among an ethnic minority objecting to plans to move some local government offices outside the city. Amateur video showed protesters in Wau being fired upon by armed men, reported to be security officials. Several demonstrators appeared gravely wounded by the gunfire. United Nations video had images of the aftermath: burned houses, displaced people and bodies in the morgue.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) announced that five thousand people had taken refuge inside the UNMISS compound in Wau. The U.N. dispatched peacekeepers to patrol the city and restore calm.
The number of the dead have been difficult to verify. Press accounts run between two and 20 killed in the protests, but the U.S. Committee to Protect Journalists said the government of South Sudan appeared to be trying to suppress information about the unrest, and to be intimidating journalists attempting to cover the events.
When the protests started, Salva Dut was a few miles away, across the Wau River, at the Water for South Sudan compound in Bahr Shirki.
“It was very sad. A loss of life for nothing,” Dut said. “It will take some time before it becomes totally peaceful. A lot of arms are out there.”
Wau’s main market was closed for several days, Dut said, forcing city residents to cross the river to Bahr Shirki, where Dut’s organization had dug wells several years ago to provide the foundation of a growing community.
The unrest in Wau delayed the start of Water for South Sudan’s drilling season, during which Dut hopes to dig another 30-40 wells before rains make South Sudan’s dirt roads impassable for his heavy trucks.
Water for South Sudan has drilled 137 wells across the country, up from 79 during Need To Know’s visit two years ago. The group estimates its work has brought clean water to 400,000 people in South Sudan.
Despite the challenges, Dut said he remained hopeful that independence will bring change to the people of South Sudan, and that the country can find other routes to export its oil and can bring development to some of the poorest people on earth.