By Silvester Okoth, Country Director, South Sudan, Veterinaires Sans Frontieres Germany (VSF-G)
When I decided to become a veterinarian, I never imagined it would involve seven-hour hikes across swamps, streams and rough terrain to deliver fridges full of animal vaccines.
A two-hour flight from Juba, where the sky meets the ground, the shrub and grasslands are occasionally interrupted only by gunshots – either a warning to turn back or take cover.
But in environments such as South Sudan, where there has been conflict since 1955, animal health forms an important part of the humanitarian effort.
Fortunately, and interestingly, war does not entirely wipe out the livestock market even though most pastoralists have lost their herds. In fact, in some areas where farmers are unable to grow grains, farm animals are the only source of food when everything else is scarce.
In such circumstances, it is crucial that we protect these animals as much as possible, especially because milk is a lifeline for the more than 275,000 children kept hungry by war.
Real improvements are only possible when you have relative peace for a long period of time to allow us to introduce better breeds and production methods.
Otherwise, the best we can do is vaccinate cows, sheep and chickens against key and endemic diseases, to safeguard them for food or for sale.
Doing so is not easy at all. The road network has been deteriorating because of the conflict, so we must use aircraft for travel. But this still leaves us hours from the field, and in the middle of a war, planes are normally reserved for priority life-saving commodities, not animal vaccines.
Three out of every four trips typically fail. But that fourth time, we manage to line up the animal health workers, refrigerate the vaccines and get on the plane. On the ground is where the hard work starts: from the fridge to the cattle in the fields, animal health teams carry the cold boxes on their shoulders.
The trek is often seven hours long, and we must keep a close eye on the cold box throughout. If the temperature rises, the vaccine is destroyed and our hard work is lost.
Our journey is difficult: you walk through open land, occasionally having to wade through streams up to your neck – but we get there. When we reach the livestock farmers, their cattle are always in the open; there are no fences. Everything, even cooking and sleeping, is done outside. It’s very basic. We have limited resources, and we do our best.
Even in areas less affected by the protracted fighting, animal agriculture remains an important way for families to increase their income, and this means better access to medicine, food and education for their children.
In this case, we have worked with farmers to introduce new breeds of chicken, which lay up to four times as many eggs. It’s an understandably closed society, where learning has not been easy. But this development – along with preventative health treatment – is meeting the growing demand for poultry and eggs locally.
In areas where there has been peace, we have been able to halve mortality levels in poultry from as high as 80 per cent.
But in the areas that have seen intense conflict for a long time, you can only achieve so much.
Vaccines are an essential service that we can offer now but long-term prosperity requires peace. Only then can veterinarians treat disease outbreaks, improve herd nutrition, educate farmers, and more.
For now though, if we can have more vaccines available and get them to the farmer and their animals, either through the humanitarian service or through private practitioners, then we’ll have eased a few of the major problems among animal livestock keepers in South Sudan.