Hydro-politics in the Sudd Wetland
Wetlands are under threat globally, declining at a rate three times higher than natural forests. This is reason for concern because healthy wetlands offer a variety of essential services to humans and are critical ecosystems in the fight against climate change.Yet, the governance of wetlands often falls through the cracks of water governance approaches and institutions in charge of managing rivers, lakes or aquifers.2 Emblematic of this is the Sudd Wetlands [Sudd] in South Sudan. Little is known about the environmental and social dynamics in the Sudd. Yet, initiatives and plans for water development projects which would affect the ecological stability of the Sudd, are increasing throughout the region. Recently, the South Sudanese government announced plans to proceed with river dredging to control unprecedented floods – a move that triggered fierce debates in the war-torn nation.
This analysis seeks to create awareness around the sensitivity of the dredging debate in relation to water management projects in the Sudd Wetland, people’s mixed livelihoods, natural resource management and seasonal flooding.3 Based on this, a number of conflict sensitivity considerations for aid actors working in South Sudan are outlined.Sudd communities, state institutions, conservationists and neighboring states, amongst others, have diverging views on how development should take shape in the wetlands.5 Particularly contentious are oil production and exploration and hydro-politics. With vast oil reservoirs underneath and near the Sudd, environmental degradation from contamination has been prevalent for decades. After an eightyear production stop, mainly due to the civil war, several oil fields and refineries restarted production in 2021. This resumption comes without improvements in the maintenance, management and legal oversight of operations. There is also growing interest in building new pipelines through the wetlands.
All this together could “see oil dominate the Sudd landscape for decades to come”6 . Another more existential threat to the ecological integrity of the Sudd is (regional) hydro-politics, which builds on a history of contestation most famously illustrated by the Jonglei Canal project7.
Recent, consecutive and unprecedented floods in the Greater Upper Nile region have triggered a new wave of discussions. In 2021, the South Sudanese government announced plans to construct a dam on the White Nile and signed a memorandum of understanding with Egypt for engineering works to reduce flood risks in the Sudd. There are also news dams under construction or constructed by upstream countries, for example, the Isimba and Karuma hydroelectric dams in Uganda. The risk here is that uncoordinated water management interventions destabilise the equilibrium of the Sudd. In April 2022, there was a heated debate in South Sudan between the government and experts [activists] over the dredging of the River Naam and an alleged resumption of the Jonglei Canal construction.
Despite being two separate ‘projects’, these are often conflated, which is partly due to the historic legacy of hydro-politics in the context of the Sudd (explored further below). The debate came at a critical time. The extension of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) was fiercely debated, a flaring up of subnational violence occurred and challenges associated with the high cost of living and environmental shocks, such as floods and droughts linked to climate change, affected large parts of South Sudan.