When Jimmy’s parents finally pulled their son out of the churning river, his body was already lifeless and limp, heavy in the arms of his father.
But the eight-year-old’s death – and that of three other boys – could have been easily prevented, had it not been for the price of drinking water in South Sudan’s capital Juba costing a third of a family’s monthly income.
The only school the family could afford was on the other side of the river, and, with no bridge, Jimmy had to wade through its turbulent waters each day.
“My brother drowned on his way to class,” said his 18-year-old sister Mary Irene, who has just graduated from high school.
The pain of losing her brother this past May is still fresh.
“Jimmy was always scared of the raging stream, but facing his fear was the only way for him to receive an affordable education. My family struggles to survive. We spend most of our money on water.”
South Sudan, home to the Nile, is not considered to be a water-scarce country. But civil war and hyperinflation have created a water crisis.
For an average family, spending a third of their earnings on water, the cost relative to income is six times greater than the internationally recognised five percent that the World Health Organization suggests families should be spending on water.
In Khor William, a hilly suburb of Juba with red mud roads and small brick houses almost hidden by grasses and maize plants, Jimmy’s family is not the only one forced to make sacrifices since water prices began to rise in recent years.
Many families, especially government employees, haven’t received their salaries lately and live on less than 1,000 South Sudanese Pounds a month G�� a mere $8 – even as prices rise with rampant inflation.
“We survive by selling homemade cake and bread. I haven’t received my wages in several months. Water comes first… Some people have died because they couldn’t afford medical treatment and others only eat maize flour and okra,” said Rose Johnson, a social worker, mother of five and one of Mary’s neighbours.
“When someone in our community falls ill, all we can do is hope and pray for the best.”