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South Sudan: Beating obstacles to build classrooms

South Sudan is vast – about the same size as France, with a population of only around 8 million. Much of the road network has been neglected during 20 years of civil war, and beyond the capital, Juba, many roads are impassable for most of the year, and often insecure. Border crossings into neighbouring countries can be unreliable and are often closed.

Access by air

The most practical way to get people and materials to Save the Children’s Emergency Programme supporting refugees and displaced people in Upper Nile State is by air. Save the Children uses the UN-operated Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) for this. The alternative is to take a barge up the River Nile, but this can take up to a couple of months.

Markets are extremely limited in areas like Upper Nile State, and most man-made construction materials need to be imported. Even though many parts of the country are forested, very little of this timber is suitable for construction, and the reliance on air-transportation creates shortages and escalates prices.

Being resourceful

Despite the constraints, Save the Children has built temporary learning spaces to support the education of around 20,000 primary school aged children in the Upper Nile State. The construction team have had to be incredibly resourceful in order to provide safe school facilities as quickly as possible, and so minimise any interruption to the children’s educational development.

The temporary schools consist of frames made from bush-poles, with roofing made from plastic sheeting and grass-thatch and walls made from reeds and mud. All of these materials have been bought from the local community, except for the plastic sheeting (a humanitarian response staple). Even the simplest elements had to be adapted to make use of what was available – there were no nails on sale in the market, so instead the team made rubber ties from old car-tyres.

The temporary classrooms may not look like much, but they provide an essential service in an extremely desperate situation. They are intended as a quick, short-term solution. We are now working with our partners to upgrade from the temporary structures shown in the photographs to more durable buildings.

A challenging  climate

The climate of South Sudan is very unforgiving. The months between June and September are characterised by heavy rains and flooding, while the time from October to May is accompanied by intense sun. Sometimes there is no cloudy respite for months.

The standard issue school tents used in many emergencies cannot cope with these conditions. They are too hot inside and deteriorate very quickly.

Building durable schools

We are currently coordinating with the Save the Children Education Team, the local Ministry of Education, the community and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to develop appropriate designs for more durable schools. It is likely that the refugee population will remain in the camps for 3 to 4 years. Therefore, it is sustainable and cost-effective to build durable schools now.

Even after the refugees have returned home, we hope to leave a legacy of school infrastructure for South Sudan, one of the poorest countries on the planet.

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