By Ali Askouri*, World River Review
April 2004 — The Merowe Dam, proposed for the Nile in Northern Sudan, demonstrates how not to plan and build a dam in the post-World Commission on Dams era. This project appears to violate virtually all of the WCD’s strategic priorities. It will displace more than 50,000 people (mainly small farmers living along the Nile, whose lives will never be the same), have far-reaching environmental consequences, and inundate a historically rich area. The dam’s impacts are expected to be great, and yet there is no project environmental impact assessment. Project planning has been non-transparent, and people who will be directly affected by it have not had their voices heard. Dissent against controversial dam projects in Sudan has been met with harsh government repression, and this project is no exception.
The government maintains strict censorship on any news about local resistance to the project. But reports of incidents have leaked out through various channels. In one peaceful protest at Korgheli Village, for example, police dispersed men, women and children with tear gas and live bullets. Organizers were arrested, detained and tortured. In another incident, when 200 families were forced to resettle from riverside lands in the inhospitable Nubian Desert, Sudanese television showed government agents posing as affected people agreeing to move peacefully and receiving money as compensation. The reality is that eking out an existence in completely barren lands could mean the extinction of the Hamadab people.
The US$2+ billion multipurpose project - a price which includes transmission lines, flood engineering works, the dam itself, and resettlement - is being financed mainly by Middle Eastern financial institutions. A Chinese firm is the main contractor on the dam, along with the French company Alstom, and the German firm Lahmeyer. The 60-meter-high dam is expected to have an installed capacity of up to 1,250MW, almost twice the nation’s current total installed capacity.
Merowe would be the first dam on the mainstem of the Nile River in Sudan. The idea of building a dam at Merowe has been circulating in Sudan for more than 50 years. However, due to a combination of economic and political factors, it remained shelved until 1992, when it was exhumed by the government. At that time, the government hired a Canadian Consultant (Monennco) to carry out a project feasibility study. This study advocated building a 1250 MW hydropower dam. The project was unable to attract funders at the time.
In August 1999, Sudan became an oil exporting country, and its newfound wealth helped to its credit rating among financiers. Consequently the government was able to re-present the project for finance. To date an estimated $1.3 billion - mainly from Middle East financing institutions - has been secured.
Sudanese civil society groups and individuals have for years argued that this project should be postponed until peace is achieved, human rights and democracy are restored, and the project’s cultural, social and environmental impacts have been fully evaluated. Such critical scientific evaluation and assessment cannot be undertaken under the current authoritarian government.
The project will necessitate the resettlement of more than 50,000 people, mainly small farmers living on the river banks. Some people are already being resettled, with poor results. In a petition addressed to the German firm Lahmeyer, Dr. Alfadil Mohammed Osman writes, "I belong to the Hamadab area. My people are now in the desert, except for those who were fit and moved to a shanty town on the outskirts of Khartoum. They have no water, no health services, no hope. It is a disastrous situation."
The original study by the Canadian consultants proposed that all affected people be resettled 250 km away from the riverbanks into the midst of the Nubian Desert. The government at first accepted this proposal, but due to continuous campaigning by the affected people, this option has mostly been dropped, though not completely. The government is still considering resettling the people from the southern part of the affected area into the desert.
While not in the middle of the desert, the proposed resettlement sites are barren, windswept places with no groundwater supply - quite different from the villagers’ current situation along the Nile. Soils in the resettlement area where one of the groups has already been moved has proven to be barren and infertile by soils laboratories in Sudan and the UK. In September 2003, a group of farmers returned from the resettlement site to their original villages when they realized the uselessness of the area for farming; the government met them with unprovoked violence, using live bullets against them and injuring many. They were forced to go back to the resettlement site by the police and security agents.
Resettlers are also expected to meet resistance by communities that are expected to host them. In northern Sudan, where the land on the river bank is extremely scarce, a movement of a different group to a land owned by another community will no doubt trigger social unrest among those communities. Earlier experiences in Sudan attest to this.
The affected population has offered to negotiate over the years, but the government has categorically refused to meet with their representatives. Instead, the government opted to appoint its own agent to represent the affected people. The affected population has conditioned their acceptance for the project with three options for resettlement:
- Resettlement on the river bank in Northern Sudan
- Resettlement in central Sudan in one of the major agricultural schemes
- Resettlement in the same area on the outskirts of the lake.
The affected population also has stipulated that they should be moved to one place as a group in order to maintain the social fabric of their communities. Instead, the government divided affected people into three groups on a tribal basis and intends to resettle them into three separate areas separated by hundreds of kilometers.
Such imagined divisions, in fact, do not exist. All, three of the groups are of Arab descent, all are Muslims, and all have the same culture and mode of life. All are strongly linked by inter-marriage and there is no barrier of any type between them. However, the government has deliberately chosen to break the unity of the affected people, to facilitate its policy of divide and rule, by emphasizing minor tribal divisions.
The government’s approach will inevitably lead to the disintegration of these communities, which have been living next to each other in harmony for hundreds of years. It will also strain family relations and social contacts. The government has categorically denied these communities any chance to discuss the issue of resettlement with each other.
Within the government bureaucracy, everything related to this project is decided solely by one man, the State Minister for Irrigation. Numerous calls have been made by the affected people and national organizations to ensure the participation of the affected people in the resettlement process. Such calls have been categorically rejected, and the individuals or organizations that made them were suppressed and prosecuted.
When some of the affected people opted to take their grievances about compensation and resettlement to court, they were denied access to justice. This was immediately followed by prosecution where a number of these people were arrested, detained and tortured.
In addition to resettled communities, others will suffer social dislocation because of flooding of the wadis, which will permanently cut off neighboring villages from each other. Some of these wadis are quite large and their crossing represents a real problem for the villagers who opted to remain in the area. No study has been conducted to investigate this problem.
A health impact study for the dam, documented in the book Dams and Disease by William Jobin (1999), has identified 20 major negative health impacts that will result from the project. "Without considerable effort and expenditures, the overall health impact will be strongly negative," Jobin writes. The dam is expected to increase or introduce serious deadly diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis, river blindness, Rift Valley Fever and AIDS.
The reservoir will also affect wildlife in the area. There is a sizable gazelle population living in the surrounding desert. No provision was made to study the effects of the reservoir on the gazelle population or other wild animals which call the desert home.
The effects of the dam on the downstream population have not been addressed, and were completely ignored. Thousands of small farmers living downstream will face difficulty in irrigating their plots due to the recession in the water level. All the area behind the dam down to the southern most reach of the reservoir of the Aswan High Dam will be deprived from the annual silt brought by the river floods. Horticultural crops which are the main produce of the local economy, beside fruit-bearing trees (mango, grapefruit, and lemon) and the rare species of date will be severely affected by lack of annual siltation and the considerable recession in the water level. The magnitude of these effects has been totally ignored.
The ecological and climatic changes that will result due to the presence of this huge body of water have been completely ignored. Without an Environmental Assessment Study, it is impossible to know what other environmental damage might occur.
The area where the dam is located is one of the oldest areas in northern Sudan and has known human civilization since the dawn of history. According to the Sudanese National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM), the project will destroy archeological sites both directly (through engineering and construction works) and indirectly, through environmental changes in the region. NCAM states that the affected area runs for about 170km on both banks of the Nile, and associated islands. According to the Merowe Salvage Project website, "Very little archaeological work has ever been undertaken in this region but what has indicates the richness and diversity of human settlement from the Palaeolithic period onwards."*
An internal memo by NCAM states: "Over the last 13 years a number of excavation campaigns were conducted by various international archaeological experts, including UNESCO. These activities have thrown more light on the archaeological potential of the region and resulted in the recording of hundreds of sites. They consist of cemeteries and tombs, rock drawings, remains of settlements, and monumental fortress of the medieval period."
In Conclusion, The Merowe Dam project was proposed, designed and implemented by an influential group within the military government of Sudan to serve its own purposes in monopolizing the electricity sector (now being privatized). Two leading European companies - Lahmeyer of Germany and Alstom of France, which has a 250 million Euro contract for equipment on the project - are playing major roles in the construction of this project, turning a blind eye to the fact that internationally accepted standards on human rights, resettlement and the environment have been ignored.
A group of activists from the affected people supported by the Sudanese civil society organizations are calling for the postponement of the project until it has been subjected to rigorous scrutiny and its effects on both people and the environment have been thoroughly investigated and assessed. The project design needs to be up-graded to match internationally accepted standards such as the World Commission on Dams. An overall updated review of the project’s most troubling components by an internationally reputable firm to review the work done since 1992, especially in light of the findings of the WCD, is of vital and critical importance.
The author is the president of Leadership Office of the Hamadab Affected People (LOHAP) in London