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City of Dreams? The harsh reality of daily life for the new urban poor in Juba

Juba – an isolated garrison town during Sudan’s civil war – is now an important political and economic centre as the new capital of South Sudan, and a hub for regional trade. But the throngs of hard-headed investors, the new roads and busy restaurants hide the grim reality for many residents: Juba has seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of urban poor since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. Receiving little attention from the Government of South Sudan or the international community, their needs are largely unmet and many have become increasingly marginalised.

Over 2 million people are estimated to have returned to South Sudan since 2005. Attracted by better jobs and services than they could find in their home villages, many flocked to Juba. Despite the Government of South Sudan’s policy of rural development, continuing insecurity and the lack of livelihoods opportunities and services within rural areas has meant that many have chosen to remain. In 2005 an estimated 250,000 people were living  in Juba. While there are no official figures at present, as the government of South Sudan rejected the 2009 census figures, experts claim that the numbers have more than doubled in just five years.

Labels used by aid actors to define vulnerability have little relevance here. Terms like ‘refugees’, ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) and ‘economic migrants’, or ‘the elderly’ and female-headed households disguise the high levels of vulnerability experienced by resident and displaced populations alike. As highlighted in the Long Road Home report, which examined the reintegration of IDPs and refugees returning to South Sudan, the speed of urbanisation makes it more appropriate to talk about the integration of different population groups with diverse life experiences, skills and education levels.

One of the greatest obstacles to reintegration is the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, contributing to tensions between different ethnic groups, as well as a sense of social exclusion amongst Juba’s youth. The realities of daily life in Juba town for the urban poor are far removed from those in the town centre where houses, hotels, and restaurants are emerging for the well-off elite and business people, as well as a large international aid community.

Current HPG research on urbanisation shows that those who own no land or who cannot afford to buy land, are particularly vulnerable. Many displaced communities sought refuge in the town centre during the war, but they say that they are now being forced to the outskirts of town, evicted from the land they had occupied, sometimes as the rightful owners. In 2009, around 30,000 people faced demolitions, displacement and destruction  of their livelihoods due to a badly implemented government effort to improve services, infrastructure and security in the town centre. Some found their legal documents worthless when confronted by soldiers who have, on occasion, taken their land by force. The vacated land has since been occupied by those who could afford to pay the highest price. Land and rental prices have soared to levels unaffordable to most people in a region where more than 90% of the population live on less than $1 a day.

Many struggle to survive in Juba’s outskirts. Many rely on casual labour for survival:  stone quarrying, firewood collection and charcoal burning. As their numbers grow, wages are unable to keep pace with the rising costs of living. Many youth are unemployed, and some resort to theft in order to survive. Levels of insecurity are high, with many households reporting they are fearful of leaving their houses at night. Today the periphery of Juba city is more violent than during the war and too insecure for cultivation. In the middle of town, markets are full of food and other supplies, but prices are high, as most food comes from Uganda and Kenya. The outskirts are overcrowded, posing serious health and sanitation risks such as cholera outbreaks. Because these areas are not classified for town planning purposes, they have no roads, no services, and no police presence to provide adequate protection. Transport to the markets in the town centre is expensive, and people pay more to buy water from the mobile water tanks than those living close to the centre.

There has been little improvement in basic services in Juba since 2005 and they are under growing pressure as population grows. Town planning has suffered from confusion about who in the Government of South Sudan and Central Equatoria State ministries has the power to make decisions on urban planning, and a reluctance to provide assistance that would attract even more people to Juba.

 The solution would be for returnees to go back to their rural villages, but, given the conditions in those villages, there is little prospect of that happening. In 2004, a policy of ‘taking towns to the people’ was developed by the government to create two model towns in each of the ten states. These would include market infrastructure, school and health centre facilities as well as community centres. However, as the newly elected President of South Sudan Salva Kiir acknowledged in his inaugural speech in May, ‘regrettably, for the last five years our achievement in this regard was, if at all, minimal’.

While the policy will be a priority following the 2011 referendum, it would be wrong to assume that the process of urbanisation will slow. Some experts claim that Juba’s population will reach 1.15 million by 2025.

What is needed is an holistic approach to post-conflict recovery, one that supports both rural and urban livelihoods and recognises the complex range of factors that affect the decisions people make about where they want to settle. With all eyes on 2011 referendum there is a policy vacuum on urbanisation and the urban poor amongst international actors. However, if the growing resentment, lack of trust and disillusionment with the newly-elected government is to be addressed, the time for developing policies and implementing programmes that benefit both urban and rural areas is now.