Essay: Population Growth and Environmental Factors – A South Sudanese Example

“I have no doubt that the fundamental source of all of our problems, particularly our environmental problems, is population growth” (David Attenborough, 2012). Population growth is considered a major global issue, emphasising the correlation between population, food and water supply and environmental sustainability. We will examine the current famine in South Sudan and the reasons behind such a crisis, exploring the relationship between subsequent food shortage issues and population increase.

N.B: I have chosen to research this topic with particular focus on South Sudan, as it is a country, a culture, a people, I have always looked upon with great fondness – however, full disclosure is necessary – I have not yet visited South Sudan, so the information presented in this essay is that acquired through research not first hand accounts.

South Sudan
South Sudan, a predominantly rural nation was born of 2011, gaining independence from the Arabic-controlled Sudan, to the country’s north. 98.83% of the South Sudanese population voted in favour of secession during the independence referendum of January 2011. July 2011, the newly appointed Capital City, Juba, erupted into celebration as independence was granted. Unfortunately, the jovial tone of South Sudan’s emergence has not remained, as the country has been experiencing raging civil war, impoverishment and famine.

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Image retrieved from Al Jazeera

In March 2017, the world’s youngest country was officially classified as in extreme poverty and famine. According to the World Bank, 65.9% of the population is impoverished, whilst Al Jazeera reports that 5.5 million people are food insecure.

South Sudan has a population of 12.5 million, and is currently experiencing the highest population growth rate in the world – approximately 3.92%. On average, 4.9 children are born to every South Sudanese mother. “Developed”* nations tend to produce fewer offspring – New Zealand women for example will give birth to just 1.9 children in her lifetime. “Developing”* nations tend to yield more children than those in the developed world, and among many other motives, it is suggested that child mortality plays a large role in population growth. Countries with high child mortality have higher population growth, as they are aiming for success in child survival. Statistician Hans Rosling stated in 2015 “people will not apply family planning until they [see] their kids surviving.” In South Sudan, infant mortality is 105 per 1,000 live births.

*please note, I hate using the term ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ as I do not believe any nation should be considering themselves more developed than others – however, for the sake of this essay, and it’s widely used terminology, I will refer to nations in this tone.

Political Pressures and Conflict
Isiah Chol from the South Sudanese National Bureau of Statistics believes “the long term effects of the conflict, coupled with high food prices, economic crisis, lower than usual production and depleted livelihood options are all contributing the deterioration of the food security situation.”

Prior to Independence, the South Sudanese region was in conflict with the northern regions of Sudan, with two civil wars raging in Sudan between 1955 and 2005. 2005 saw the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, with a referendum to be voted on after an interim period of six years. In 2011, the referendum divided Sudan, and South Sudan became an independent state with overwhelming majority. From the beginning South Sudan was to bring itself back from the brink of the Sudanese Civil Wars, and that would be no easy task. However, disunity within South Sudan itself erupted – what began as a political power struggle led to an outright ethnic war.

The predominant ethnic tribes of South Sudan are Dinka and Nuer. In 2013, the President, Salva Kiir, member of the Dinka tribe, fired his Deputy President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, on suspicion of plotting a coup. The division of Parliament led to fracturing of tribal unities and in 2013 South Sudan’s first Civil War broke out. Fighting has tended to follow ethnic lines, and it is believed both sides are targeting civilians by raping, beating and oftentimes killing innocent people.

It is unclear how many people have been killed as a result of the civil war, but it is estimated 2.1 million have been internally displaced, with a further 1.5 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Millions of civilians have fled their homes, farms and livelihoods, leaving behind livestock. Forced to abandon their homes and animals, people have lost the means to feed themselves and their families.

Furthermore, politicians and armed rebels are interrupting the distribution of international aid. According to United Nations officials, President Salva Kiir’s government forces are hindering delivery to some areas. Journalist Simona Foltyn stated “armed actors [are] deliberately targeting civilians who have received aid. Part of this is out of necessity because they don’t get anything to eat themselves, but… a lot is also a deliberate effort to starve a population that is perceived to be sympathetic to the other side.”

Conflict in South Sudan has displaced many people, whether internally or internationally, and one of the aspects that must be considered is the strain this is putting on neighbouring country’s populations, but also the strain that will be put on South Sudan should displaced people return.

In times of uncertainty, evolutionarily we are inclined to produce more offspring to spread our genes. Hardship often causes higher child mortality rates, thus the more children a couple have will increase their chances of success. However, biological factors are only part of the equation – cultural views on maternity, children and social issues at the time also factor in to birth rates.  Further to this, the government is currently spending on militarisation rather than health, which will subsequently have flow on effects regarding women’s health and birth control. Additionally, children are being born as the consequence of rape – women raped by soldiers often do not have the means, nor the safety, to access emergency contraceptives.

The South Sudanese political world must try to put their differences aside in order to create a better world for their people and encourage ethnic groups to do so also.  A peace agreement was signed in 2015, yet this has continually collapsed and violence still ensues. Serious legislation regarding peace agreements, sustainability, and a pledge to spend money on education, health care and agricultural progress must be implemented. Women, in particular, need access to medical care including contraceptives should they wish.

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On the outskirts of the Capital, Juba.  Photo credit: Greg Snyders.

Impoverishment and Inflation
The current situation in South Sudan is that of impoverishment – in fact over 80% of the population are income poor, living on less than 6 South Sudanese Pounds (1 USD) per day. The only major sector in South Sudan is oil, which accounts for roughly 15% of GDP, while approximately 85% of the working population works for no wage. Prior to the displacement caused by the civil war, South Sudanese families relied heavily on subsistence farming, meaning they produced just enough to provide for themselves, without surplus for trade or exchange. Thus, when the political climate of South Sudan was calm, these particular families could care for themselves, without the need for money. Now with a lack of money and due to displacement, many have lost the means to farm, being unable to provide for themselves.

The political conditions of the country has led to hyperinflation, with inflation increasing 730% from August 2015- August 2016. With this, food prices have increased, leaving the average South Sudanese family incapable of purchasing even the minimum to keep themselves alive and healthy. Of the produce imported, half could be grown in South Sudan’s fertile soil.

Furthermore, the South Sudanese Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning state that the country has no monetary reserves with which to provide citizens basic necessities, and what minimal revenue is made from oil is spent on the military budget rather than food, health, housing and education.

The aforementioned aspect of reproduction for evolutionary purposes in times of hardship applies again to impoverishment. Additionally, subsistence farming families in particular may be having more children to provide labour for the family establishment. 83% of South Sudan’s population lives rurally, putting pressure on rural townships to provide for the village’s needs. Mercy Corps is providing agricultural equipment and helping to establish small village markets so food can be readily accessed by those in rural areas.

With the Nile River running through the country, and with a wealth of natural resources such as oil, gold and iron ore, South Sudan has the potential to become a successful, developed nation. The country’s oil reserves are being partially exploited, but with a success deficiency. A national drive to create industry, with an emphasis on environmental sustainability could create jobs for South Sudanese and develop trade exports. Additional GDP income should be spent on the people of South Sudan, rather than militarisation.

More significantly, however, taking advantage of South Sudan’s naturally rich soil, and ability to produce many crops such as sweet potato, sesame, maize, rice, cassava and beans to name a few, would benefit the country in a plethora of ways. “Developing a vibrant agriculture industry in South Sudan is critical to moving this war-decimated country down the path toward recovery and, eventually, prosperity,” said David Hughes chief of USAID’s FARM Project. Firstly, South Sudan may be able to pull itself out of famine, create jobs for locals and sell produce on an international scale. The initial steps to educate people with the intention of creating successful, profitable farming have begun to take place – in 2016 an agricultural school in Morobo County was opened, with Italy’s financial support. The aim of the training centre is to increase crop productivity in the region, while educating in the fields of sanitation, health and environmental management. Not only will increased agricultural abilities help to reduce hunger, but it may also contribute to a lessening of the fertility rate in South Sudan. As we have seen during the development of the Western World, as the masses are educated to higher degrees and as the country begins to prosper, the population growth rate essentially diminishes – in most developed countries we now see couples having, on average, two children, thus simply replacing themselves.

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Photo retrieved from Al Jazeera

South Sudan’s climate is worsening the effects of the famine. The country’s agriculture is vulnerable to changing weather patterns. Droughts and desertification in the north are causing issues for farmers and livestock, whilst in South Sudan’s greenbelt to the south, flooding and excess rain is making farming and delivery of aid dangerous. The rainy season (April/May) makes conditions difficult for humanitarian workers to deliver aid. With just 60 kilometres of paved roads, flooding makes roadways and airstrips muddy and inaccessible. Furthermore, with the lack of sufficient waste-management, excess precipitation can spread contaminated water spiking cholera and other water-borne diseases, leading to additional problems.

Climate issues exacerbate the already tough conditions in South Sudan, making it harder to provide food, which further aggravates the hostilities among people. Environmental factors will always impact human health and well-being, especially when it comes to fresh water and farming practices.

In 2016, the World Food Programme distributed 265,000 metric tonnes via aeroplane drops or truck access, reaching areas inaccessible due to flooding. Oxfam International use canoes to reach villages on small islands, and those in obscure locations.
Particularly in the south, collection and purification of rain water could utilise water which would otherwise cause flooding, whilst also providing the public with drinkable water. Clean waste-management processes should also be implemented in order to decrease the risk of water-borne diseases, whilst enhancing the environment. In the north, planting programmes would encourage sustainable agricultural practices, while reversing deforestation.

Poverty, health crises, conflict, climate and population growth are commonly connected, which we have seen through the South Sudanese example. Our planet cannot provide infinite life-sustaining resources. In order to minimise our environmental footprint as a species whilst continuing to provide for ourselves, we must understand the characteristics of population growth and the consequences of such. In order to tackle population growth, particularly in developing nations, we must first address the problems these regions are facing. As we have seen through the development of many nations worldwide, population growth continues to climb until the country has reached a certain level of prosperity, safety and low child mortality.

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