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Sudan Dispatch: The Coming Struggle

Does South Sudan’s government stand any chance of meeting its citizens’ basic needs?

Juba, Sudan—As voting continues in this week’s referendum, which is expected to pass, people here in the south are eagerly awaiting the formal announcement that their homeland, finally, will be a free nation. But, just before the vote began, Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir angered southerners when he said, “The south does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority.” Riek Machar, vice president of southern Sudan, called Bashir’s comments “unfortunate” and argued that, once the region gains independence, it will be able to provide necessary services to its people.

But is this true? Even here in Juba, the southern capital and the most developed part of the region, the government is struggling to meet health, infrastructure, and other critical needs—needs that are mounting as thousands of southerners displaced by war return home to live in the new nation. “Juba is a fast-growing town, so of course we have a lot of problems,” acknowledges Ali Hassan, the Ministry of Health’s director for preventive medicine and disease control.

(Read Rebecca Hamilton’s earlier dispatches from this week's historic vote in southern Sudan: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

One central concern is clean water. In a part of the city called Hamza Inn, treated water is pumped into tankers that private traders, seizing the opportunity to make a profit, have purchased to deliver water to local restaurants and households. At times, this system works well. But, sometimes, electricity shortages halt the flow of water to the pumps. “When that happens, you can be here for maybe four hours just queuing to fill your tank,” explains one Eritrean trader who bought a water tanker and moved to Juba three years ago. Hassan said the Ministry of Health has heard reports that some tanker drivers, impatient when the clean water isn’t available, “go to get water from untreated areas, like those on the Nile.”

Hassan says the ministry has been trying to educate the local population to ask tank drivers if their water is from a treated or untreated source, and to put chlorine tablets in their water before drinking it. But that message has yet to reach everyone. There is also reluctance among many people to spend money on chlorine tablets, which the government used to distribute free of charge—a service it stopped providing last year.

A related issue is garbage collection, which the government originally tried to contract out to private companies, but with minimal success. Alfonse Pitia, director of public health in Katur Payam, one of the administrative districts in Juba, says the company the government did hire “only had two cars, not even a truck.” So now, the government is paying local workers 15 pounds (roughly $5) each day to collect trash in wheelbarrows and load it onto trucks the government has hired.

But this process is far from a good solution to Katur Payam’s trash problem. In the district’s main market, most of the traders take their garbage to a site that the trucks don’t reach. “Garbage has been accumulating here since 2005,” says Augustino Amon, a long-time resident of the area, pointing to the smoking dump site that now encroaches on the areas where female traders gather to sell fresh produce. “People who live around here don’t have toilets, so, at night, they come to defecate here, and then, when it rains, this all flows into the Nile.”

The southern government hopes that, after independence, thanks to the region’s lucrative oil fields, it will have more resources to provide basic services. But how exactly the oil trade will pan out isn’t yet clear. What is certain, however, is that, for urban areas like Juba, independence will also bring with it a significantly expanded population. “Returnees are registering in their places of origin and then, through the transit process, are realizing they don’t want to return to those rural areas,” explains Renee Lambert, emergency coordinator for Catholic Relief Services. “We’re going to see an increase in needs in the urban population.”

To be sure, that southern Sudan’s government, in existence for only six years and not yet independent, is able to provide the services it does is impressive. But the harsh reality is that the government will be hard-pressed to solve the many dire challenges, including those threatening to public health, that loom in a free South Sudan.

Rebecca Hamilton is the author of Fighting for Darfur and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her Sudan reporting is supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center.