Before a leg injury forced him to postpone travel, Pope Francis was scheduled to make an ecumenical “pilgrimage of peace” to South Sudan. He would have been joined by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Rev. Jim Wallace, moderator of the Church of Scotland. Together, the three faith leaders were hoping to build on momentum established back in 2019, when Francis and Welby hosted South Sudanese political leaders for a spiritual retreat at the Vatican. That event—in particular the poignant moment when Francis bowed to kiss the feet of each attendee—marked a turning point for the troubled African country, where civil war had been raging for six years. Not long after their visit to Rome, on February 22, 2020, President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar, the opposition leader, announced the end of hostilities. It was an extraordinary development: while the South Sudanese peace process has been sluggish, and sporadic fighting has continued, this previously unthinkable display of unity signaled real progress.
Whenever their visit occurs, Francis, Welby, and Wallace should harbor no illusions about the brutality of South Sudan’s recent history and the difficulties it poses for creating a lasting peace. The country has been split along ethnic lines since violence erupted in December 2013, two years after the referendum that formalized South Sudan’s independence. Just hours after Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup, Dinka soldiers loyal to the former stormed the streets of the South Sudanese capital, Juba, systematically rounding up, torturing, and killing members of Machar’s Nuer ethnic group. Weeks later, Nuer militias responded by attacking the city of Bor, about 130 miles to the north, overwhelming government troops, raping and killing women in their hospital beds, beating men and children to death, and gunning down anyone who tried to escape. All told, some two thousand civilians were killed. Since then, hundreds of thousands more have died as a result of atrocities committed by both sides.
Compounding South Sudan’s political divisions is the ongoing devastation wrought by climate change, to which the country’s impoverished population is particularly vulnerable. Located where the Horn of Africa meets the semi-arid Sahel, South Sudan has long had a highly variable climate. Precipitation there is difficult to predict, as erratic rainfall patterns sometimes produce both droughts and floods in the same year. Historically, this variability made life difficult, but not impossible. Sedentary farming communities developed ways of preparing for and responding to unusual droughts and floods by stockpiling grain, while nomadic sheep and cattle herders traveled great distances in search of greener pastures.
But after many years of war, some of that traditional knowledge has been lost. And the strategies that do remain are not always useful. That’s because climate change brings more extreme heat, shorter growing seasons, and increasing floods, imposing what the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls “hard limits to adaptation.” Where people and ecosystems are already living precariously, coping with even incremental changes in climate becomes impossible.
Consider the experiences of South Sudanese communities historically affected by floods. These regions, like the vast Sudd wetland, have recently become even more crowded, filled with refugees displaced by war. Traditionally, when the floods arrived, residents built earthen dikes to protect their homes and crops. Then, they celebrated, with entire families using repurposed mosquito nets to capture all the fish they could.
But more and more, the floods bring fear rather than celebration. Higher water levels can cause earthen dikes to fail after two or three days, destroying crops and forcing communities to scramble for alternative sources of food. Mud houses collapse and must be rebuilt. Cattle constrained to graze in standing water often fall ill and sometimes die after consuming rotting or infected food. Residents that remain must sleep without shelter, exposing them to diseases like cholera and malaria. Even humanitarian aid is more difficult to deliver. Today, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese in need of food assistance remain cut off by road damage caused by last year’s floods.