Century-Old Canal Project Sparks Opposition in South Sudan

A petition to stop the revival of the 118-year-old Jonglei Canal project in South Sudan, started by one of the country’s top academics, is gaining traction in the country, with the waterway touted as a catastrophic environmental and social disaster for the country’s Sudd wetlands. 

It follows a series of calls within South Sudan’s government to restart the project in order to prevent flooding and improve the region’s infrastructure. The country’s vice president has already announced plans to conduct a feasibility study in the hopes of getting the defunct canal operational. 

The vice chancellor of the University of Juba, Professor John Akec, launched the “Save the Sudd” social media petition with the intention to submit it to the country’s president once completed. Akec’s petition has already gained tens of thousands of signatures out of the required 100,000. 

Previous research has shown that the canal would have serious repercussions on the delicate ecosystem of the Sudd region, including negative effects on the aquatic, wild and domestic plants and animals, as well as interfere with the farming activities of the people in the region, potentially displacing them.

“We will not have enough water and it will dry up and if it dries up, all the livelihoods that connected to that area, including fishing, resettlement and grazing lands will be lost,” Akec told The Associated Press. 

“Water is more valuable than oil, diamonds and gold,” said Akec. “Let’s wake up from our sleep and stop the theft of water and destruction of our ecosystems and economic future by Egypt.” 

The canal, first proposed by a British engineer in Cairo back in 1904, would divert water away from the Sudd wetlands to deliver 10 billion cubic meters (2.6 trillion gallons) from the Nile to downstream Sudan and Egypt. Plans started to take shape in 1954 but the project was halted 30 years later and is now at a stalemate. About 270 kilometers (168 miles) of a total of 340 km (150 miles) of the canal has already been excavated.

 Earlier this year, one of South Sudan’s vice presidents, Taban Deng Gai, called for the resumption of the canal project in order to prevent flood disasters in Jonglei and Unity state. 

The floods have led to a widespread collapse of livelihoods, severely hindering the ability of households to maintain their livestock. Traditional coping strategies and sources of income are no longer viable for many communities.

“We never lacked food as farmers, but now the floods have destroyed our farms. There is water everywhere,” said Martha Achol, a farmer and mother of six, who recounted the struggles inflicted by the floods in Jonglei state. 

Another local farmer, 60-year-old Mayak Deng, agreed. “We had enough food then but today we don’t have enough,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Nile basin countries are experiencing water scarcity due to the impacts of rapid population growth and climate change, creating renewed interest in the canal project. 

South Sudan’s minister of water resources and irrigation, Manawa Peter Gatkuoth, said that the project would also create avenues for infrastructural development, agriculture, river transport and tourism. Gatkuoth has requested an approval and a budget from the office of vice president Riek Machar to kickstart the canal. 

But environmentalists worry about disrupting the Sudd’s delicate balance and life cycle. Deng Majok Chol, a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, argues that the ongoing increase in flooding events is only a small fluctuation within the longer millennial cycle of the Sudd. 

Rainfall caused by the evaporation of water in the Sudd will be largely reduced if the canal project comes to fruition, with green areas at risk of becoming dry and arid. There are concerns that even those living beyond the Sudd region, as well as in downstream Sudan and Egypt, will be negatively impacted. 

An environmental and social impact assessment warned that the canal project would “irreversibly or partially destroy downstream ecosystems.”

“The current calls for the resumption of the Jonglei Canal project demonstrate a failure to observe and learn from the global trend of water management challenges compounded by global warming,” said Majok. “It does not take a rocket scientist to see these moves as baits, strategically calculated toward a more than a century goal of exclusive control over how Nile water is utilized.” 

Economic and climate concerns have also stirred opposition to the canal. 

“The economic value of the Sudd wetlands is estimated at a billion dollars annually and this will be lost if the wetlands are drained, ” Nhial Tiitmamer, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Program at the Sudd Institute, warned. 

Tiitmamer added that the Sudd wetlands are a migratory transition points and corridors for bird species that migrate between Europe and Africa every year and some of these birds are classified both in South Sudan and internationally as endangered species. 

He cautioned that the project will lead to an “exacerbation of climate change through reduction of carbon sinks as well as through release of carbon dioxide from the wetlands destruction.”

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