A towering clock strategically positioned at a major roundabout in Juba counts down in days, minutes and seconds the time remaining before registered voters flock to the polls to cast ballots in next year's self-determination referendum.
In anticipation of the ballot, the resident diplomatic community in Juba has been growing by leaps and bounds. A dozen consulates already operate in Southern Sudan, and more have voiced interest in establishing a similar presence in the city.
The world is literally descending on Juba, said UN Development Programme Advisor on Peace and Development Dan Eiffe.
"They are considering this as an opportunity to move away from humanitarian aid to help with real state-building," said Mr. Eiffe, an ex-priest who has lived and worked in Southern Sudan for over 20 years.
UNMIS is building a sprawling office and accommodation complex 12 kilometres from downtown Juba on a 126-hectare piece of land near Jebel Kujur.
The new UN House Project Manager Georges Bou Saba said the complex would accommodate 1,000 office staff from UN agencies as well as the peacekeeping mission. Senior UNMIS officials have described the project as a tangible sign of the UN's long-term commitment to Southern Sudan.
Mr. Saba said Jebel Kujur is expected to become a hub for many government ministries and diplomatic missions in coming years. The Ministry of Transport of the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) has already established its headquarters in that area of the city.
Foreign delegations, referendum observer missions and international news media are also streaming into Juba ahead of the long awaited balloting scheduled to begin on 9 January 2011.
To accommodate rising volumes of passenger air traffic, the big international carriers Kenya Airways and Egypt Air started flying to Juba in the last half of 2010.
Investors wait anxiously on the fringes. The number of paved roads and new buildings sprouting in the regional capital attests to the soaring demand for housing, office space and a better road network.
The private sector is looking ahead to the referendum with great anticipation, said Mike Lucas, Managing Director of the Active Partners Group, which was awarded a government contract five years ago to build power generation projects in eight southern states.
Mr. Lucas foresees an influx of investors and contractors who will be looking to make quick money. A lot, he says, will depend on the technocrats and policymakers who will help shape the investment climate in Southern Sudan.
"The outcome of some of these issues will greatly affect our decisions as investors," he said. "But it looks very promising."
Most of the hotels in Juba are enjoying high occupancy rates and have had to turn away many prospective guests, according to Trevor Kandiah, general manager of the Juba Grand Hotel. His hotel is planning a major expansion of its facilities to establish itself as the industry leader in the city.
Officials of the Southern Sudan Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture forecast a flood of foreign investment pouring into the capital after next January's referendum.
Chamber consultant Charles Anyama said that preference would be given to companies willing to establish production facilities that would create new jobs and help lessen Southern Sudan's heavy reliance on imported goods.
While hype surrounding the referendum has provided a welcome boost to some sectors of the local economy, others have not fared so well. The scarcity and rising cost of the US dollar for foreign exchange traders dealing in Sudanese pounds has narrowed their profit margins.
Restrictions on the purchase of foreign currency in banks have also complicated matters for small businessmen. Hardware vendor Jojo Modi said he queued at a local bank for an entire day to obtain a mere $200 in hard currency, which he needs to purchase imported merchandise.
Uncertainty surrounding the referendum has also fuelled rising prices in Juba's open-air markets as some merchants cut back on new orders to replenish dwindling stocks. "I used to sell a tray of eggs for 8.5 Sudanese pounds last May," said Customs Market wholesaler Joseph Kenyi. "But now I sell it for 12 pounds, yielding me an extra 3.5 pounds."
The real estate sector has not been spared. As more southerners move from North Sudan to the regional capital, the demand for relatively scarce rental housing has gone through the roof.
Celina Kiden was recently served an eviction notice by her Juba landlord, who needs the house she's been renting to accommodate some of his relatives who have arrived from Khartoum.
"I have been looking for a house for rent for two months now, but without any success," said Ms. Kiden, adding that a two-room, semi-permanent dwelling that could be leased for 200 Sudanese pounds a month as recently as last August is now fetching between 400 and 600 pounds.
As the countdown clock on the roundabout ticks away, the dreams and demands of many Southern Sudanese continue to soar.
"The population expects their natural resources to be better utilized and the perennial food shortages ended (after the referendum)," said Clement Kuot of the GoSS Ministry of Information.
Whatever the result, the boom town of Juba is poised to maintain its current breakneck pace of expansion as ever more investors, diplomats, returnees, humanitarian aid workers and others adopt the city as their newfound home.
Antonette Miday and James Sokiri
Water crisis looms large
As more and more residents return to Southern Sudan from the north and neighbouring countries to participate in next year's self-determination referendum, already limited supplies of potable water in Juba are fast becoming even scarcer.
The inhabitants of Juba's Hai Baraka shantytown on the northwestern side of the regional capital depend on one well to meet their water consumption needs.
"You have to be patient enough while waiting for your chance to pump," said area resident Jane Rose. "I have to queue for five to six hours to get my turn."
They blame the city's emerging water crisis on the influx of newcomers who are placing a greater strain on public services, infrastructure and the supply of housing.
"This referendum has brought back many people, resulting in water shortages," said Hai Baraka resident Joyce Aita. "Early this year, most houses in this area were vacant, but now all the houses are occupied."
Buying purified water is out of the question for the urban poor, who cannot afford to pay the seven Sudanese pounds charged by itinerant vendors for a 240-liter container.
The vendors themselves must also wait in line for lengthy periods to fill up their tanker trucks at the city centre's lone water treatment plant.
"I have to wake up at 4 a.m. each day in order to queue up to get my share of the day's water," said Ikawa Richardi Odokonyero as he sat in his truck on a recent weekday morning.
Ms. Aita and her neighbours in Hai Baraka should count themselves fortunate in at least one respect. The residents of some parts of Juba have no access whatsoever to a nearby well and must rely on the muddy waters of the White Nile for their source of water, risking exposure to river-borne diseases.
"We do not have a borehole here," said Josephine Bakhita as she collected water directly from the river at a point near the Konyo-Konyo market area where she lives. "Even pipe water does not reach us, so we drink this water."
To alleviate Juba's worsening water shortage, the Southern Sudan Urban Water Corporation (SSUWC) unveiled a treatment plant in the city centre last June with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development, which funded its construction.
In September, the SSUWC handed over operation of the plant to a private company. The firm has since opened two more water treatment plants at Juba Teaching Hospital and in the Munuki district of the regional capital, according to one of its employees, Simon Peter Igga.