Centennial canal project sparks opposition in South Sudan

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

It follows a series of requests from the government of South Sudan to restart the project in order to prevent flooding and improve infrastructure in the region. The country’s vice president has already announced plans to carry out a feasibility study in hopes of putting the defunct canal into operation.

University of Juba Vice Chancellor Professor John Akec launched the ‘Save the Sudd’ social media petition with the intention of submitting it to the country’s president once completed. Akec’s petition has already gained tens of thousands of signatures out of the 100,000 needed.

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

“We won’t have enough water and it will dry up, and if it does, all the livelihoods tied to that area, including fishing, resettlement and grazing 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 Egypt’s water theft and destruction of our ecosystems and economic future.”

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

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

The floods led to a widespread collapse of livelihoods, severely hampering the families’ ability to keep their livestock. Traditional survival 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’s water everywhere,” said Martha Achol, a farmer and mother of six, who recounted the struggles inflicted by 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 facing water shortages 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 the project will also create avenues for infrastructure development, agriculture, river transport and tourism. Gatkuoth requested an approval and budget from the office of Vice President Riek Machar to kick-start the channel.

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

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

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

“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,” Majok said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see these moves as bait, strategically calculated for a century-plus goal of exclusive control over how the Nile’s water is used.”

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

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

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

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

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The Associated Press’ climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about the AP climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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