The Jonglei Canal Project in Southern Sudan: why the hurry and for whose benefit is it?
By Jacob K. Lupai*
May 26, 2007 — The expected resumption of the digging of the Jonglei canal is bringing back fresh memories of the controversies surrounding the Jonglei canal project when it first started. The project was considered one of the most important integration projects between Egypt and the Sudan with the primary objective of ensuring the flow of 4.7 billion cubic metres of the Nile water annually to be distributed between Egypt and the Sudan. It was seen as the development of modern irrigation and drainage facilities that would put an end to agriculture being tied to the annual patterns of flooding and drought in the two countries. In 1974 Egypt and the Sudan agreed on the construction of the Jonglei canal that would drain the Sudd and provide Egypt with water needed during the arid season. This may provide some answers to the questions why the hurry and for whose benefit is the resumption of digging the Jonglei canal in Southern Sudan.
A brief background to what has become the Jonglei canal project may be helpful. The Nile is acknowledged as the world’s longest river flowing from south to north over 6,800 kilometres until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea. Its basin includes ten states of Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt and the Sudan. The Nile water provides the basis for human life in the arid lands of the Sudan and Egypt. The annual flood of the Nile has throughout the ages provided both the alluvial soils and the water on which the irrigated agriculture of Egypt has been based. However, Egypt is always paranoid that somebody somewhere may cut the flow of the Nile as without the Nile water there will not be Egypt. With about 98 percent of the country being desert and with a growing population dependent on irrigated agriculture for food the threat of water stress is real in Egypt. Understandably the Nile is the main source for any expansion of water use in Egypt.
In the colonial era Britain was the dominant power in the region and controlled the major part of the Nile basin. In 1922 when Egypt became independent the Egyptians repeatedly asserted their aspirations concerning the Sudan. From time to time the use of the Nile water emerged as a serious issue in Anglo-Egyptian relations. The Egyptians caused the most problems for the British as planned developments on the Nile became a disputed matter between the Egyptians and the British government. The problem was resolved when in 1929 British sponsored the Nile Water Agreement which regulated the flow of the Nile and apportioned its use. However, the Nile Water Agreement was nothing but for Egypt to consolidate its grip on the use of the Nile water. This agreement included the following:
Egypt and the Sudan utilise 48 and 4 billion cubic metres of the Nile flow per year respectively
The flow of the Nile during January 29 to July 15 (dry season) would be reserved for Egypt
Egypt reserves the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries
Egypt assumed the right to undertake Nile river related projects without the consent of upper riparian states
Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would affect its interests adversely
It is abundantly clear that the Nile Water Agreement of 1929 favoured Egypt and apportioned it the lion’s share of the Nile water. It is also clear that the agreement makes Egypt to hold the other states in the Nile basin hostages with threats of war if any of the countries dares to assert its independence in the use of the Nile water. Egypt nearly went to war with Ethiopia after Ethiopia opposed attempts by Egypt to divert the Nile water to the Sinai desert.
In 1959 an agreement of the full utilisation of the Nile water was signed between Egypt and the Sudan. The agreement is known as the Nile Waters Treaty which has been held until the present time. The average flow of the Nile is considered to be 84 billion cubic metres per year, and evaporation and seepage are considered to be 10 billion cubic metres. This leaves 74 billion cubic metres for Egypt and the Sudan to divide between themselves. According to the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty the allocation for Egypt is 55.5 and for the Sudan is 18.5 billion cubic metres per year respectively. Egypt and the Sudan took upon themselves, perhaps selfishly, to agree that the combined needs of the other riparian countries wouldn’t exceed 1-2 billion cubic metres per year and that any claims would be met with one unified Egyptian-Sudanese position.
It can be seen that both the 1929 and 1959 agreements combined as Nile Waters Treaty has bestowed the ownership of the Nile water upon Egypt and the Sudan in an apparent lack of consideration for the other countries in the Nile basin. However, it could have been that, with the exception of Ethiopia, the other countries in the Nile basin were still under colonial rule and did not have a voice when the Nile Waters Treaty was signed. The countries were not yet independent to have a say on how the Nile water should have been apportioned. It was appropriate, though, that Ethiopia should have been included in the negotiations that produced the agreement.
About 96 percent of the economically active population in Egypt is engaged in agriculture and Egyptian agriculture is entirely dependent on irrigated land. In Egypt 88 percent of the water is consumed in agriculture. As Egypt is about 98 percent desert any expansion of agriculture to feed the growing population means an increase in irrigated land. Egypt’s desperate need for enormous quantities of water is therefore abundantly clear. The Jonglei canal project was seen as the ultimate solution to Egypt’s high demand for water. In the colonial era the British were quick to realise the importance the Nile would have for their colonies in Africa. Over the centuries strong winds and the force of the Nile had created natural dams made up of plants and soil in the swamps of the Sudd in Southern Sudan. These natural dams made navigation up the Nile past a certain point completely difficult if not impossible. Soon after the Sudan was reconquered in 1989, the British began to free the Nile of the vegetation which was obstructing the passage of steamers. When enough blockages had been removed to clear a path through the Sudd, the British had already begun drawing up alternative drainage plans for a swift flow of the Nile.
We have seen that Egypt is about 98 percent desert and Egypt needs more water to irrigate more land to feed its exploding population. Egypt therefore has an ambitious desert reclamation plan of 6,000 square kilometres of new fields so that it needs another 9 billion cubic metres of the Nile water per year. To increase the flow of the Nile in order for Egypt to realise its ambitious desert reclamation plan, Egypt sees the completion of the digging of the Jonglei canal through the vast swamps of the Sudd in Southern Sudan as the top priority. It is therefore not a surprise when the Egyptians are desperately urging the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) to be given a green light for the completion of the Jonglei canal project. Let’s hope that members of the GOSS will not be duped by Egyptians diplomatic skills or even bribed. However, I am confident that the GOSS and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) will serve the best interest of the South in particular and the marginalised in general.
It is only a fool that may not know for whose benefit is the Jonglei canal project. The hurry to complete the Jonglei canal project is because Egyptians are no fools. The Egyptians are precisely aware of the likely outcome of the referendum in 2011 if it at all will take place. The overburden of oppression and the scandalous underdevelopment of the South in the name of unity and with the costly loss of lives and property may be an enough reminder to Southerners on how to vote in the referendum. Only a miracle will make unity attractive. Even a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon has a block of flats and houses and streets and roads that are nowhere to be found in Southern Sudan. The Egyptians may like the completion of the Jonglei canal project before the referendum because of uncertainties. However, it will be a clear case of abdication of power for the GOSS to allow itself to be remotely controlled by the Egyptians for a project that seems to have no clearly defined development models and benefits for the inhabitants notwithstanding the possible destruction the canal may bring to the area.
It seems obvious that the Jonglei canal project was mostly conceived, planned and decided upon by outsiders with hardly the participation of the indigenous people of the area whose lives would be affected by the project. It was clear form the outset that when completed the project would mainly benefit Egypt and Northern Sudan because there were no irrigation schemes in Southern Sudan comparable to those in Egypt and Northern Sudan. The Jonglei canal project was therefore the creation of Egypt and Northern Sudan. The claim that water was lost at Sudd through evaporation and transpiration to justify the Jonglei canal project was not convincing. In theory the evaporated and transpired water would fall back as rains hence topping up whatever was lost through evaporation and transpiration. There is no mention of where did the water lost go except the impression that the water was lost forever.
The Jonglei canal project is likely to affect the bio diversity and ecosystem of the area. The Sudd is one of the largest floodplains in Africa, providing watering and feeding grounds for populations of migratory mammals and birds. This floodplain borders the arid Sahelian region and is an important watering place for many species as they move across the landscape. The floodplain ecosystem supports a variety of plant species. Wild rice grassland dominates the seasonally inundated floodplains. This seems to suggest that rice may grow in the Sudd area. Improved rice varieties may grow in the floodplains in addressing poverty in Southern Sudan. During the 1980s Southern Sudan had among the highest population levels of antelope in Africa and the Sudd has been listed as a key location for the recovery of threatened antelope in Sub-Saharan Africa. Among the most abundant species found are the white-eared kob, the tiang and the Mongalla gazelle and these three species of antelopes make large-scale migration over the relatively undisturbed habitat of the Sudd. A million individuals of white-eared kob undertake a massive migration following the availability of floodplain grasses.
It is to be noted that the floodplains of the Sudd provide important habitat for several species of birds. The floodplains support the largest population of shoebill in Africa. The endangered white pelican flies over 2,000 kilometres from Eastern Europe and Asia to reach one of its most important wintering grounds on the floodplains of the Sudd. The Sudd is also a stronghold for the black crowned cranes, a species that has been designated vulnerable. Annual floods are crucial to the maintenance of biological diversity in the Sudd. The Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk (or Cholo) co-exist in the Sudd with tens of thousands of large herbivores depend on the annual floods and rain to regenerate floodplain grasses which feed their herds of cattle. Fishing in the Sudd is also a means of livelihood.
There is evidence to suggest that the Jonglei canal project is mainly to the advantage of Egypt and Northern Sudan. However, one advantage to Southern Sudan may be that travel time to the north will be shorter. Nonetheless in this jet age who would really use a boat to travel to the north with all the inconveniences of mosquitoes feasting on one’s body. At any rate it is seen that diversion of the water may most likely cause the Sudd swamps and associated floodplains to shrink dramatically, threatening the fauna and flora that depend on the swamps and floodplains for survival.
The Jonglei canal is likely to have a significant impact on climate, groundwater recharges, silt and water quality. This is also likely to involve the loss of fish habitat and grazing areas which in turn will have serious implications for the indigenous people of the area. A whole range of effects of the canal may be shown to be disadvantageous to the inhabitants of the Jonglei canal area. The river-flooded grasslands are an essential seasonal resource during the driest months of the year. A severe decrease in the discharge into the Sudd resulting from the Jonglei canal would bring about the total disappearance of many lakes in the papyrus zone and reduce others to status of seasonal logons with a serious loss of year-round fish and fishing potential.
The canal may in many areas drive a barrier between wet season villages and dry season grazing grounds along the river channels and therefore dislocate the pastoral cycle. Crossing the canal will present a logistical problem and besides raises questions of landownership among those who may need to cross the canal and cross each other’s territory. It can be seen that the Jonglei canal project is not without serious problems to bio diversity and ecosystem inn the area. The people at the receiving end are the inhabitants of the area in particular and Southern Sudan in general. However, for Egypt there is no problem as long as the Jonglei canal will provide the needed water for the growing population of Egypt.
The Nile is the main source of water for the ten nations which make up the Nile basin. Access to the Nile water has been defined as a vital national priority by countries such as Egypt and the Sudan and it is an issue over which the two countries have professed themselves to go to war. However, as more of the countries in the Nile basin develop their economies, the need for water in the region will likely increase. Other countries of the Nile basin consider the Nile Water Agreement of 1929 granting Egypt the lion’s share of the Nile water and with absolute authority over the Nile as a colonial relic. The Nile Water Agreement which Britain signed on behalf of its east African colonies forbids any project that could threaten the volume of water reaching Egypt. However, all is now changing despite Egypt’s warmongering. Tanzania has completed a pipeline from Lake Victoria to benefit people in towns and villages in the arid north-west of Tanzania. This was interesting as the Nile Water Agreement of 1929 gives Egypt the right of veto over any work which might threaten the flow of the Nile. It could be that the quantity of water drained through the pipeline was insignificant. It could have also been because the other Nile basin countries have now started to speak out openly about the challenges they face as they try to equitably share out the Nile’s resources and to have outdated colonial treaties abrogated.
One big step forward is that the days of the Nile Water Agreement of 1929 are numbered. Egypt and the other nine countries of the Nile basin have agreed to review the 1929 Nile Water Agreement which gave Egypt veto power over any use of Nile or Lake Victoria water by its southern neighbours. This has become possible as a Nile basin initiative was launched in 1999 as a transitional arrangement until a permanent framework is in place. However, this has not stopped the other countries Egypt had deprived for too long to start initiating their own projects for the use of the Nile water. It seems it is now an open challenge to Egypt which has been acting like a tyrant to the poor Nile basin countries. Ethiopia with chronic food insecurity has announced its intentions to develop about 200,000 hectares of land through irrigation projects and construction of two dams in the Blue Nile sub-basin. It is worth noting that although the Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and discharges about 86 percent of water downstream to Egypt, Egypt did not allow Ethiopia to use the Blue Nile water or Ethiopia would facer threats of war.
In East Africa Tanzania has launched a project to draw water from Lake Victoria to supply one of its arid regions despite Egypt’s veiled threats. Tanzania has not budged. Kenya was also considering non-recognition of the Nile Water Agreement of 1929 despite Egypt’s threats. A senior Kenyan parliamentarian suggested that the Nile water should be sold to Egypt and the Sudan for oil. Uganda is also constructing a hydroelectric dam at Bujagali. It seems Egypt’s self-proclaimed status of being a super power in Africa by threatening war over the Nile is coming to an end. Egypt is most likely to find it a mammoth task to go to war with all the remaining countries in the Nile basin. However, Egypt may still be living in the past glory of absolute lordship over the use of the Nile water but times have changed and Egypt may need to adapt faster for it may be unlikely that it will win a war in Africa.
This article has gone to some length to demonstrate that the completion of the Jonglei canal project is being hurried up for the benefit of Egypt to great extent. As the article has shown Egypt does not care about the other countries of the Nile basin as long as it receives its lion’s share of the Nile water uninterrupted. Egypt’s greed for the Nile water is likely to be a prolonged war either through the battle field or through arm-twisting in conference halls. Egypt wouldn’t care about the plight of Southern Sudan if that would guarantee its lion’s share of the Nile water. The other countries in the Nile basin have allowed Egypt for too long to enjoy absolute hegemony over the Nile
The Jonglei canal is a likely disaster to the bio diversity and ecosystem of the area. Worse still there seems to be no development model for the area. What is the proposed agricultural and industrial development for a high standard of living of the people in the area on both sides of the canal? What are the linkages to the wider development of Southern Sudan? In other words what will Southern Sudan benefit from the Jonglei canal project when it is clear that livelihood may be affected which will likely be a burden to cope with.
In conclusion Southern Sudan did not fight two costly wars that lasted forty years to be at the receiving end of predatory outsiders’ imposed projects and to allow its natural resources to be plundered with impunity. We have to stand up for the people’s gains and aspirations for a better quality of life for all and security as the peace dividends.
* The author is an agricultural extension expert and a researcher on household food security with reference to peasant farming. He can be reached at email@example.com .