Sunday, 12 August 2007

The Far North of Sudan: The Next Conflict?

This originally appeared on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 12 August 2007.

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While the world's media are concentrating on the deployment of peacekeepers to Sudan's troubled Darfur, a new threat is rapidly emerging in two areas of northern Sudan where the government is building hydro-electric dams that will displace local communities and could ultimately create a new conflict zone.

The older project, the Merowe dam along the fourth cataract of the Nile, begun in 2003 and due to become operational as early as 2008, is to be the second largest in Africa and significantly boost national energy production. It has been contested by the local population who will not only lose their traditional homelands but are also being refused access by the government to the new waterfront land. Though the locals are not entirely opposed to the dam, numerous negotiations have failed to address adequately their demands for resettlement and compensation, leading to tension and clashes in which civilians have been killed and arrested by security forces.

The second project is further north, in the area of Kajbar, and threatens to submerge parts of the ancient Nubian homeland, much of which was already lost when Egypt opened the Aswan High Dam in 1964. It faces near unanimous opposition from the Nubian community. Originally proposed in 1995 then cancelled in 1999, it was revived in early 2007. There have already been several violent clashes between the Nubians and the government, and the risk of more is very real.

A report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published in June 2007 said only a limited environmental impact assessment had been done for the Merowe dam, which was authorised more than two years after construction started. UNEP also argued that, as envisioned, Merowe's negative effects for the region would include riverbank erosion, reduced river valley groundwater recharge, blocked fish migrations and, possibly, damaged downstream agriculture. In addition to the potential for an escalated conflict, this can have catastrophic humanitarian consequences. And these can be immediate, as the government plans to flood the reservoir as early as August, which could displace as many as 7,500 families.

The refusal of the local populations to condone the government's plans at the peril of their livelihood has led to a crackdown by the government in both areas. In March 2007, angry residents surrounded a security force sent to the area. In April, government forces fired on a peaceful protest in Amri, killing three civilians. At a protest in Kajbar on 13 June, police and security forces fired on unarmed civilians, killing four.

On 20 July, Osman Ibrahim, the spokesperson of the committee opposing the Kajbar dam, was arrested, joining at least eight other local leaders who are being held incommunicado and then released at later stage. Osman Ibrahim is still in custody of the authorities.

In its campaign to silence any criticism about the dams, the government also detained five lawyers who had established a consortium to defend the affected population. They were accusing the government of serious human rights violations in relation to the construction of the dam and protested against the impunity of the police with regard to the recent killings of innocent civilians.

The government's lack of transparency and heavy-handed approach fuel conspiracy theories which, even if unproven, could lead to more conflict. These theories imply that people in the affected communities perceive the dams not only as poorly executed development projects designed to create national energy security, but also as threats to distinct cultures and traditions. Their prevalence raises the risk of serious new conflict, and the actions of the government are only increasing community fear and suspicion.

Implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the 2005 deal that ended the devastating north-south war in Sudan, is not the sole answer, but it could improve the perception of government and help change the culture in which it operates.

The international media should jump on this story, which has received hardly any attention at all. As a leading Sudanese intellectual from the Merowe area has warned: "Terrible things will happen unless people move to avert the crisis."

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