‘We lost everything’: Thousands homeless as Sudan battles floods

Wading through waist-deep water, residents of the al-Shigla neighbourhood in Omdurman, twin city of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, tried to rescue what was left of their possessions as they floated by.

Others stood by in despair, observing the aftermath of days of torrential rains that brought record-breaking flash floods to the country where the Blue and White Niles join to become the Nile River.

Pieces of furniture, broken tiles, damaged vehicles and more were washed away by this year’s rain that fell profusely and continuously for nearly two weeks.

The rain and flooding exceeded records set in 1946 and 1988, killing more than 100 people and forcing the government to declare a three-month state of emergency this week.

To many Sudanese like Amna Ahmed, seasonal rains, in and of themselves, are nothing new. The food vendor is usually prepared for the country’s rainy season, which lasts from June to October.

Despite losing “everything”, the 63-year-old is thankful that the devastating floods did not also take her life. This year, she is one of the thousands of people who lost their homes.

“We lost everything. We lost our homes, furniture, clothes, and we were even about to lose our lives,” the mother of four told Al Jazeera.

According to her, the Nile’s water levels increased drastically over the past few days, reaching a peak on Friday night. Since then, it has been overflowing, “demolishing everything” from homes to trees and cars.

Last week, a committee tasked with dealing with the ramifications of the floods, warned that the country may face more rains, adding that the water level in the Blue Nile rose to a record 17.58 metres. 

Experts say climate change is a large part of the problem.

‘Critical situation’

On Monday, authorities in Sudan declared a national state of emergency and designated the country a natural disaster zone.

The floods have so far impacted more than half-a-million people and caused the total and partial collapse of more than 100,000 homes in at least 16 Sudanese states.

Sudan’s Khartoum, Blue Nile and River Nile states are among the hardest-hit, while damage has also been reported in the Gezira, Gadarif, West Kordofan and South Darfur regions, according to the United Nations.

A man stands outside a flooded house in the town of Omdurman, about 18 miles (30 km) northwest of the capital Khartoum, Sudan, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

A man stands outside a flooded house in the town of Omdurman, across the White Nile from the capital Khartoum [Marwan Ali/AP Photo]

“We are in very critical situation. The government’s efforts to save us are nothing comparing to the size of the actual damage,” said Ahmed, who now sleeps in front of her destroyed house.

“What we now need is shelter, food, medicine and vaccines for the children,” she said.

The desperate cries are reflected in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where tents have been put up to accommodate the displaced.

While the government managed to evacuate residents of 43 affected villages across the country, thousands of families in Khartoum were left to hold on to whatever they could save as they wait for the floods to subside.

Some families have been sleeping on whatever dry patches of land they can find, on sidewalks and in front of demolished homes.

‘No one came to help us’

Meanwhile, Sudan’s civil defence force has been attempting to dig a drainage channel meant to reduce Nile water levels, but that has so far been unsuccessful.

Ezz Aldin Hussein placed the blame squarely on the government.

“The government still does nothing for us,” Hussein, whose home in the badly hit al-Lamab neighbourhood in south Khartoum was partially destroyed, told Al Jazeera.

“The rainy season is known to come every year, but we don’t see the government seriously prepare for it,” the 56-year-old engineer said.

In failing to “save our lives and belongings”, Hussein believes the country’s new transitional government does not differ from former strongman President Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

Hussein was among the millions in Sudan who risked their lives and protested against al-Bashir’s oppressive 30-year rule that ended last year.

An aerial view shows buildings and roads submerged by floodwaters near the Nile River in South Khartoum, Sudan September 8, 2020. Picture taken September 8,2020 with a drone. REUTERS/El Tayeb Siddig

An aerial view shows buildings and roads submerged by the Nile floodwaters [El Tayeb Siddig/Reuters]

Unemployment, deeply rooted corruption and economic sanctions were the main drivers behind the mass protests that toppled al-Bashir.

What followed was the rise of a fragile power-sharing government that is now working to achieve a democratic transition in Sudan amid acute economic woes.

But to Hussein, these challenges should not have hindered the state’s ability to respond to Sudan’s latest crisis.

When the walls of his house fell on his car parked in the driveway, Hussein reached out to the police and civil defence authorities, but said “no one came to help us”.

“I had no option but to call my neighbours to help me pull my car from under the wall,” he said.

The Sudanese people have relied on a tradition of social mobilisation for immediate relief.

“Nafeer” – an Arabic word meaning “a call to mobilise” – is seeing people turn to each other to seek and offer support. The youth-led initiative brought together thousands of people earlier this month to help each other in battling the crisis.

In Hussein’s neighbourhood, youths gathered to organise people, build structures to assist displaced families and load trucks to distribute food and other items.

Ahmed Abul Motaal, a 22-year-old volunteer, said he joined the initiative because he wanted to participate in the Sudanese tradition after seeing his fellow citizens lose their homes and suffer in the floods.

“We are organising ourselves in different neighbourhoods to help our people,” Motaal said, adding that the initiative’s objective is to also “fill the gaps that are outside the hands of the government”.

“We saw the houses collapse and the elderly and children [stranded] … We had to do something.”

Additional reporting by Mohammed Alamin in Khartoum.

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