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South Sudan’s rainy season brings months of intense, overwhelming downpours. For aid agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the country’s limited road infrastructure presents an enormous challenge for trying to move humanitarian supplies – particularly in the rainy season, when many roads wash out. After reports that swamped roads were blocking trucks on a route vital for food delivery, WFP has dispatched teams to assess the road conditions and see what can be done to keep the critically needed food moving. WFP’s George Fominyen went along.
For a road assessment, I travelled with WFP civil engineer Tsota Assegued and logistics officer Allan Busiinge to Rokon, a small locality 80 kilometers northwest of Juba, to evaluate the obstacles that our trucks are facing on the road headed north toward Rumbek.
Barely 18 km outside of the capital, we met the first obstacle: A bridge had collapsed sometime back, and a ford had been constructed as a temporary measure to get traffic across the river.
When we got there, the crossing was flooded but passable, with some trucks, cars and motorbikes driving through the torrent of water. It could have been worse. Some soldiers stationed at the bridge told us that two nights before it was almost impossible to cross because of heavy rains.
"Whenever it rains and there is flood, the level of water rises to about 1.5 metres and traffic is blocked," Assegued said. "A remedial measure would be to install a series of pipes underneath the concrete deck (of the ford) which would ensure that less water flows over the deck," he added after taking notes and GPS coordinates of the location.
Struggling Through The Mud
From this point onward the road conditions deteriorated further. We drove through potholes the size of a swimming pool filled with mud. Little streams and rivers cut sections of the road. Crossing one of these points, it felt like our 4x4 was swimming.
At a point around 40 km from Juba, I counted about 30 trucks waiting for the earth to harden so they could attempt to drive through a degraded segment of road. About half of them were transporting WFP food commodities.
What was supposed to be the road had become an expanse of mud, broken up by a series of earthen ridges and waterlogged gutters. A trailer returning to Juba after delivering WFP cargo attempted to cross as we watched. It was a bad idea. Seconds into the attempt the mammoth vehicle was stuck, the engine grunting in the middle of the mess. Some of the wheels were spinning but the rest were thrust deep into the mud. Out came the implements: spades, pick-axes, and diggers. Time to dig out the mud that had clogged some of the wheels and fill the ditch with what hard soil could be found, to ease passage for the truck.
We made it past this treacherous stretch of "road," though; the lighter 4x4 vehicles in our convoy hopped and skidded their way through.
A Complete Break In The Road
After three hours of bumpy and slippery driving, we arrived in Rokon, but even then there wasn't much relief. Trucks were everywhere. The drivers said there were between 100 and 150 trucks transporting goods and cargo for businesses and aid agencies, many with stickers showing they had been hired by WFP to transport food. Were there 50, 60 WFP-hired trucks? I lost count. That's about 2,250 metric tons of food that was stuck on the road. That is enough to feed 96,000 people for a month. How long would it take for this food to reach the people who need it so badly?
The trucks were all held back by a 500-metre stretch of impassable road. Right in the middle was a truck about 1.5 metres deep in mud. It just couldn't budge. It was carrying 45 metric tons of specialized nutrition commodities for WFP. Other trucks were transporting cereals, pulses and vegetable oil.
What struck me was the mood of the drivers and their assistants. Some were cooking on the roadside while others were digging a new road to allow vehicles to pass, all in a light-hearted mood filled with lively banter.
When the drivers saw Allan, the logistics officer, they skipped in the mud with excitement. Allan used to be a convoy leader and has known many of these drivers for years.
"Allan, we've been here for four days," said Soumaili Kaka, one of the drivers. "The roads are really bad. I have been on the road for one month! I left Juba on 22 July headed to Aweil, and I am still on my way back. Can you imagine? Something needs to be done."
Road transport is a challenge in any rainy season in South Sudan, but the current severe deterioration of the road network is leading to substantial delays in the delivery of much needed food assistance. A road trip that would normally take two days from Juba to Rumbek now takes a week.
Because the country is facing an enormous humanitarian crisis, these delays are dangerous. WFP is having to consider carrying out emergency road repair works on some vital trunk roads so we can keep getting food through. The alternative is to fly food around the country, but moving food by air costs seven times more than sending it by road - so the repairs make financial sense.
WFP has dealt with this before. Between 2004 and 2011, WFP ran a roads project that repaired 2,600 km of roads in what is today South Sudan, linking eight out of the 10 key cities and establishing road corridors not only to the north, but also to Uganda and Kenya. The country's authorities took over the responsibility of maintaining trunk roads after independence in 2011 and WFP refocused its road construction activities on rehabilitating smaller feeder roads that connect agriculturally productive areas to markets. Unfortunately, in many places the main roads have fallen into disrepair.
The drivers clearly miss the old days.
"We are transporting WFP food to help people in this country, [so] you [WFP] have to do something like in the old days and send a rapid repair team," Kaka appealed.