Century-old canal project sparks opposition in South Sudan
A petition created by one of South Sudan’s leading academics to block the reactivation of the 118-year-old Jonglei Canal project is gathering support in the nation. The canal is dubbed a catastrophic environmental and socioeconomic catastrophe for the country’s Sudd wetlands.
It comes after a succession of appeals for the project to be restarted to avert floods and strengthen the region’s infrastructure. The country’s vice president has already said that a feasibility study will be conducted to reopen the disused canal.
Professor John Akec, the vice-chancellor of the University of Juba, started the ‘Save the Sudd’ social media petition to submit it to the country’s president once finished. Out of the requisite 100,000 signatures, Akec’s petition has already received tens of thousands.
The previous study revealed that the canal would have significant consequences for the Sudd region’s sensitive environment, including detrimental impacts on aquatic, wild, and domestic flora and animals and interfering with the region’s agricultural operations, possibly displacing the region’s inhabitants.
“We will not have enough water, and it will dry up,” Akec told the Associated Press. “If it dries up, all the livelihoods tied to that region, like fishing, resettlement, and grazing grounds, would be destroyed.”
“Water is more precious than oil, diamonds, or gold,” Akec said. “Let us wake up from our slumber and stop Egypt from stealing our water and destroying our ecosystems and economic future.”
The canal, initially suggested in Cairo in 1904 by a British engineer, would move water away from the Sudd wetlands to send 10 billion cubic meters (2.6 trillion gallons) of Nile water to downstream Sudan and Egypt. Plans began to take form in 1954, but the project was stopped 30 years later and is now at a standstill. The canal has already been excavated for around 270 kilometers (168 miles) of its ultimate length of 340 kilometers (150 miles).
Taban Deng Gai, one of South Sudan’s vice presidents, appealed earlier this year for the canal project to be restarted in order to avert flood catastrophes in Jonglei and Unity states.
The floods have caused widespread livelihood breakdown, severely limiting people’ capacity to sustain cattle. Many communities’ traditional coping mechanisms and sources of revenue are no longer feasible.
“As farmers, we never ran out of food, but the floods have wrecked our land. There’s water all over the place “said Martha Achol, a farmer and mother of six, recounting the hardships caused by floods in Jonglei state.
Mayak Deng, a 60-year-old local farmer, agreed. “We had plenty food back then, but not now,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nile basin nations are facing water constraint due to fast population increase and climate change, sparking new interest in the canal project.
Manawa Peter Gatkuoth, South Sudan’s water resources and irrigation minister said that the project would also provide infrastructure development, agriculture, river transportation, and tourism opportunities. Gatkuoth has sought clearance and funding from Vice President Riek Machar’s office to begin construction on the canal.
On the other hand, environmentalists are concerned about upsetting the Sudd’s delicate balance and life cycle. According to Deng Majok Chol, a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, the continual rise in flooding episodes is simply a minor variation within the Sudd’s longer millennial cycle.
Rainfall from water evaporation in the Sudd would be significantly decreased if the canal project is completed, putting green regions in danger of becoming dry and parched. There are fears that those living outside the Sudd area, as well as in downstream Sudan and Egypt, may suffer.
The canal project will “irreversibly or partly damage downstream ecosystems,” according to an environmental and social impact study.
“The present requests to restart the Jonglei Canal project show a failure to monitor and learn from the worldwide pattern of water management difficulties exacerbated by global warming,” Majok added. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to view these measures as baits, carefully intended to achieve a century-long aim of exclusive control over how Nile water is used.”
Economic and environmental concerns have fueled resistance to the canal.
“The economic worth of the Sudd wetlands is estimated to be a billion dollars a year, and this would be lost if the wetlands are drained,” Nhial Tiitmamer, director of the Sudd Institute’s Environmental and Natural Resources Program, warned.
Tiitmamer further said that the Sudd wetlands serve as mobile transition sites and corridors for bird species that move between Europe and Africa each year. Some of these birds are designated as endangered in South Sudan and worldwide.
He warned that the project will “exacerbate climate change via the depletion of carbon sinks and the emission of carbon dioxide through the degradation of wetlands.”