While South Sudan is in the throes of a vicious war which has killed thousands, displaced over a million and unleashed a famine which threatens the lives of another four million, the Ministry of Environment has decided to concentrate its energies on a smoking ban.
The decision announced on Tuesday, October 7, bans smoking in public places and imposes fines of about 500 South Sudanese Pound (USD 170) — that is double the monthly salaries of workers and civil servants (who, in reality, don’t get their salaries paid on time due to the war).
It’s not as if the Ministry of the Environment lacks work: Instead, it faces a catalogue of risks and urgent environmental disasters. Take the South Sudanese who suffer as oil companies dump their industrial wastes.
In Melut, to the north of Upper Nile State and Panrieng in Unity State, for example, women have an increased amount of miscarriages and babies born with deformities.
This issue was raised in parliament in 2011 but no one seemed to care. The Ministry of Environment did not pay much attention. After all, for the government, to interfere with the all-important oil trade would be to cross a red line.
Then, at the end of September, the Governor of Panrieng, complained that the people living around oil fields were developing unfamiliar diseases. He blamed pools of water polluted with chemical wastes.
No one has ever heard of the Ministry of Environment taking any steps to intervene and save the lives of these people living without access to health services in oil-producing areas.
And amid the war underway since last December, South Sudanese cities such as Bor, Malakal and Bentiu have faced a major environmental disaster that have sparked the outbreak of epidemics of diseases like cholera, which has spread fast, killing a large number of people.
The death rate among children in Bentiu is on the rise, according to estimates of the United Nations. The death toll has reached 200 children in recent months due to the dangerous pollution of the city. But, once again, the Ministry of Environment did nothing.
Meanwhile, farmers also complain that the once reliable rainfall rates have become unpredictable while frequent floods destroy livelihoods. But the Ministry of the Environment has still no plans on how to mitigate these effects.
But, finally, last week, the Ministry of Environment finally acted — but not to tackle it’s lengthy to-do list. Instead, it decided to ban smoking in public places.