With much else to worry about, South Sudan keen to tackle climate change

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 10 December 2015 10:00 GMT

Jikany Nuer White Army fighters holds their weapons in Upper Nile State, South Sudan February 10, 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

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"Sometimes you do feel you have too much on your plate," says the country's environment minister

By Laurie Goering

PARIS, Dec 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deng Deng Hoc Yai, South Sudan's environment minister, runs an agency so new it is still looking for a plot of land to build its offices on. But that has done nothing to curb his environmental ambitions for the world's newest country.

As part of a bill now in the legislature, Yai aims to ban the felling of trees without government permission, to plant two million new trees a year, charge a pollution fee to anyone who drives a car or takes a plane flight and institute vehicle emissions testing for all older vehicles.

He would also ban smoking in public, impose a life prison sentence on anyone who kills an elephant, and shut down by 2020 the ubiquitous power generators that are a major source of electricity in the energy-short country.

In a four-year-old country struggling with plenty of other urgent problems, including 2.2 million people displaced by civil war, some of the world's worst poverty and a government cash crisis caused by the plunging price of oil, the nation's major source of income, that will be a challenge, he admits.

"Sometimes you do feel you have too much on your plate," observed Yai in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris.

At the talks South Sudan, with some other so-called "least developed countries", is seeking a new global deal to tackle climate change that would limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a level designed to head off the worst climate change disasters.

To make that happen, countries like South Sudan will require enough cash to help them develop cleanly using renewable energy.

They also want help adapting to the impacts of climate change, which in South Sudan have included worsening flooding, droughts and desertification. They also want help with tackling deforestation and building people's skills to cope with climate change issues.

COST OF CHANGES

South Sudan's national climate change plan - created to contribute to a new global climate deal to be agreed in Paris this week - puts the cost of the changes at more than $50 billion by 2030.

Globally, wealthy countries have agreed to mobilise $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries like South Sudan.

Just how badly that help is needed is evident from South Sudan's environment budget, which last year was about $5 million.

However, "we didn't get it all, only about 22 percent," said Yai, who has been environment minister for two years. "When you submit requests for money to the Ministry of Finance, they sit on it."

Still, when it comes to addressing climate change and environmental issues in South Sudan, "starting from scratch has an advantage," said Yai, who has no formal training in environmental issues. "You can leapfrog other countries, learn from their experiences and avoid the pitfalls."

The bad part, he said, is that "sometimes you can be lost. You can be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the task."

Among the challenges Yai's ministry faces is growing deforestation, as people short of power and jobs turn to cutting down the forests for cooking fuel and to produce charcoal for sale as far away as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey.

"It's a big business. You can sell a sack of charcoal in Turkey for 10 times what it costs here. And there are all these trucks coming with food (aid) and going back empty, so it's very cheap to export it," he said.

The new environment bill aims to stop the losses by requiring ministry approval to fell more than 10 or 15 trees, and forcing violators to plant trees as a form of community service, he said. But "enforcement is going to be difficult," he admitted.

As droughts worsen in the region, conflict over scarce grazing land and water for cattle also is growing on the country's borders as herders from neighbouring countries come seeking greener pastures. Floods displaced more than 40,000 people last year, and more than 2,000 this year.

DIVERSION FROM DEVELOPMENT?

An equally big problem is simply convincing other ministers - and South Sudan's people - that climate change and the environment are problems worth a space near the top in the country's long list of priorities.

"A lot of people feel we are diverting money from development, and I can see their argument. There are pressing problems of life and death that you have to address as soon as they come up," said Yai, who studied in Egypt and Britain and has degrees in English language and literature.

But "climate change affects the food security of the country, the number of people who are disaffected, who are employed, who have poor health," he said. "It can actually cause more problems."

Yai, who was born in an illiterate farming family near what is now the border with Darfur and who has to guess at his age - doctors think he's about 50 - may not have a lot of time to achieve his big aims.

South Sudan is due to create a new transitional government of national unity by mid-January "so there isn't much time left for me as Minister of the Environment to do much more," he admitted.

He hopes his ambitious environmental bill, now facing its second reading in the legislature, will pass, but puts the odds of that - perhaps optimistically - at "about 80 percent."

Questions remain as well over whether the new climate deal set to be struck in Paris this week will deliver the global warming curbs and financial help that South Sudan needs.

"With the current situation we are already experiencing a lot of problems. If the temperature rises even a little more, it will be a disaster," he said. (Reporting by Laurie Goering, editing by Tim Pearce:; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

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