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Confronting Climate Change in South Sudan: Risks and Opportunities


By Jean-Luc Stalon and Biplove Choudhary

The man made crisis in South Sudan has pushed the country back on multiple fronts: ranging from an outbreak of a severe macroeconomic crisis to an unmitigated humanitarian crisis afflicting 7.3 million people and severe food insecurity impacting an estimated 4.9 million people across the country. The onset of the mid-December 2013 crisis, now raging for more than three and a half years, has greatly hampered agricultural production, disrupted livelihoods and worn out the coping abilities of communities.

In the context of this multifaceted crisis, there exist several compelling reasons as to why climate change risks in South Sudan should be a pressing worry at this point in time for the policy makers and international partners.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that in Africa, climate damages as a percentage of GDP may be 10 percent higher than the next most exposed region (India) and more than twice that of the United States, Russia, Eurasia and Latin America. The phenomenon of climate change transcends regions and boundaries and is bound to affect poor countries like South Sudan disproportionately despite their having no role in contributing to global warming. It is at once highly vulnerable and least prepared to address looming threats systematically across sectors.

South Sudan has been classified globally as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the negative impacts of climate change. According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2017, South Sudan is ranked amongst the five worst performing in the world alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Haiti and Liberia. Atypically, projections indicate that in South Sudan, global warming will be felt 2 ½ times more than the global average. Amongst the channels of transmission, this is expected to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, result in extreme climate change-linked weather events and alter current rainfall patterns, including heightening the risks of flooding and displacement of people living along the Nile River.

The agriculture sector further highlights the country’s extreme vulnerability to climate change shocks. Up to 95 percent of the livelihoods of the people of South Sudan, or more than 11 million people, depend on climate-sensitive sectors, including agriculture, forestry resources and fisheries. Anecdotally, seasonal streams are beginning to dry up, negatively affecting fish yield and fishing communities in several parts of the country. South Sudan’s strategic position along the Nile River means fish is an important and prominent source of protein for people, under the impact of hyperinflationary pressures many can barely afford the high priced fish in the markets. Climate change and its impact on fishing will only exasperate this problem. Drier weather spells are also likely to be an underlying driver of increased deforestation and resource-based conflicts between the pastoralists and the farming communities over access to grazing land.

As the world gears up to confront the threats posed by climate change and support communities most affected, South Sudan faces a grave risk of being left behind despite being a signatory to the Paris Agreement. Mounting evidence across countries and regions show inaction now can have long-term and potentially irreversible consequences. A case in point is the Lake Chad region which in relatively short span of fifty years has shrunk from an area of 25,000 square kilometres to 2,500 square kilometres, affecting nearly 50 million people and turned into a ‘threat multiplier’ by exacerbating tensions and conflicts in the communities that live there.
What is the way forward for South Sudan?

Being on the very frontline of climate change linked risks, the country needs a bold and ambitious international response. AfDB estimates that more than US$10-20 billion is needed per annum for the next 10-20 years for climate change adaptation needs in Africa. Global support and action must include access to a new, adequate and sustained source of climate change finance and clean technology which can help communities to adapt, build capacity and strengthen multi-sectoral domestic preparedness. While a good start, the needs far outstrip the resources available within the Global Environmental Facility and the Green Climate Fund. The external financing imperatives become even more salient given the deep macroeconomic crisis which has engulfed the country and the lack of fiscal space in the near term to undertake adaptive measures.

In the absence of credible and sustained finances, as the UNFCCC argues, adaptation responses will fall short, be limited to being reactive, humanitarian and relief-oriented, raising the costs of adaptation in the future and exposing millions of people at risk of being displaced or affected by increased potential conflicts over water, food and energy.

Start-up funding and support must target building climate smart agriculture practices, provision of clean energy solutions to set in motion a nation-wide process of transformative adaptation. This would mean the promotion of crop diversification, breeding better-adapted seeds and livestock, climate-sensitive agriculture extension services, and sustainable water management across the country for building self-sufficiency in food and nutrition security.

Research capacities to collect and analyse climate-related data and feed it into tailored policy responses will help to institute community adaptive measures and actions, regulate deforestation and promote sustainable natural resource management practices. These will help to address the low adaptive capacity in the country.

South Sudan has a historic opportunity to enjoy the latecomer’s advantage by gleaning lessons from other countries which transitioned from polluting energy sources to powering economic growth and delivering jobs through innovative renewable energy solutions. There is a need to support the functionality of the basic infrastructure of critical government institutions such as police and prisons, schools and health facilities as a part of early recovery. Access to electricity is vital to the smooth running of health facilities including laboratories for diagnostic tests; refrigeration for cold chain commodities such as vaccines; emergency obstetric care and basic information technology services. South Sudan has the potential for stand-alone solar photovoltaic (PV) units and possibly for large-scale solar thermal generation since it experiences in average 10 hours of sunshine per day per year round. The private sector has a vital role to play and can draw on replicable successes in South Africa and Kenya.

Strengthening domestic preparedness on climate change adaptation, and investing in climate resilient agriculture will be a concrete step towards building resilient communities. The challenges faced in South Sudan call for a new way of working by striking a better balance acting simultaneously on lifesaving, recovery and resilience-building fronts. This approach lies at the very heart of transformation and reorienting the country towards a brighter, more sustainable future.

Jean-Luc Stalon is the Senior Deputy Country Director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in South Sudan. He is also a PhD candidate at the Bordeaux (France) Institute of Political Studies on Political Economy issues. He can be found on Twitter @JLStalon.
Biplove Choudhary is a Senior Advisor for Human Development and Inclusive Growth at UNDP South Sudan. He can be found on Twitter @Biplove2000.

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