The Other Nile River

The battle over the waters of the Blue Nile, pitting Ethiopia against Egypt and Sudan, has been all over the news lately. Notably, the debate has focused on the Blue Nile and largely ignored the other Nile, the White Nile. Which is odd because most accounts of the “source of the Nile” and official measures of the river’s length focus on the White Nile. More importantly, any lasting diplomatic solution to the ongoing inter-state contests over Nile waters will necessarily have to include all the Nile basin states — many of which are politically relevant on account of being part of the wider White Nile basin.

Screen Shot 2020-07-28 at 4.14.56 PMThe reason for ignoring the White Nile is simple: less than half of its waters actually reach Sudan and Egypt. An estimated 50% of the White Nile’s waters evaporate in the Sudd (a massive swamp whose full extent is about twice the size of Rwanda). Overall, the river contributes about a fifth of the Nile’s total flow. It therefore makes sense that Egypt and Sudan care more about the Blue Nile and Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Yet the While Nile has not always been ignored. Multiple times over the last century, the loss of water to evaporation in the Sudd generated debates about how to ensure that more of the rivers’ waters reached Egypt. Potential solutions included damming upstream lakes (Albert, Kyoga, Victoria) to act as reservoirs and reduce water loss to evaporation, dredging parts of the Sudd to increase the rate of flow, and building earth banks to prevent overflow into the wetlands.

However, the one idea that actually got off the ground was the construction of a canal to bypass the Sudd (see image below).

Screen Shot 2020-07-28 at 7.54.30 PMThe first plans to build the Jonglei Canal emerged in the early 1900s under the colonial Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan. After Sudan’s independence in 1956, Egypt convinced Khartoum to build the canal. Construction works started around 1975, with Egypt and Sudan agreeing to jointly shoulder the $300m cost of the project (about $1.44b in 2020 dollars). But then politics and conflict intervened. Following the collapse of the Addis Ababa Agreement and resumption of Sudan’s civil war in 1983, the canal construction sites became easy targets for rebel forces seeking to depose Gaafar Nimeiry’s repressive regime in Khartoum.

At the time, about two thirds of the 360k Jonglei Canal (which is visible on google maps) had already been excavated. The canal was intended to be about 50m wide on average and between 4-8m deep. For comparison, when completed the Jonglei Canal was going to be longer than the Suez (193km) and Panama (80km) canals combined.

Proponents of the project argued that it would provide effective flood control, boost agricultural development, improve riparian navigation between Bor and Malakal, and free up of more water to flow downstream the Nile. Critics of the project have often highlighted the likely reduction in fishing resources, exacerbation of competition for grazing areas among communities that rely on the region’s grasslands, likely aridification of the central South Sudanese region due to reduced rainfall, risk of ecological damage (the Sudd has a rich flora and fauna), and disruption of vital wildlife migration routes.

Various models suggest that the construction of the canal would decrease the size of the Sudd by up to 32%. The figure could be higher (up to 50%), especially as upstream Nile basin counties build their own dams and expand their use of water for irrigation (other scholars have placed likely peak contraction of the Sudd at 16%). While it is possible to regulate the flow into the canal to mitigate extreme aridification of the Sudd wetlands, the fact that such decisions would be at the discretion of politicians pose real environmental risks.

As tensions rose over Ethiopia’s GERD, some commentators suggested that the Jonglei canal may provide a way out of the impasse. But authorities in South Sudan remain opposed to the project. In addition to the hard-to-predict environmental impacts of the canal, Juba is rightfully worried that a piece of international infrastructure of this kind would likely turn South Sudan into a geopolitical pawn. Most reasonable people would agree that Juba is in no position to enter into a fair agreement with its neighbors to the north. That said, it is not inconceivable that as Ethiopia uses ever more of the Blue Nile’s waters, Egypt and Sudan might be forced to give South Sudan a better deal to complete construction of the Jonglei Canal. And it goes without saying that the success of such a deal would be predicated on support from the other Nile basin states.

On Sudan’s history with coups

Coups beget coups (see, for example, the case of Ghana. More here). Furthermore, coup risk is typically highest after power turnovers, (like is the case in Sudan).

coupsFor these reasons, there is fair amount of clustering within countries when it comes to coup incidence. In Africa, Sudan leads the charts when it comes to coup incidence. According to Jonathan Powell’s data, Sudan (14) is third to Bolivia (23) and Argentina (20) in terms of the total number of both attempted and successful coups between 1950-2014 (note that this figure is different from rumored coups or other coup incidences that do not result in an actual attempt).

Because of its history with coups and military rule, it is going to be very difficult for Sudan to cycle back to civilian rule. The military has become used to governing, and will likely want to protect its turf relative to a civilian government, should one emerge.

This is not to say that establishing civilian rule is completely infeasible in Sudan. The generals in Latin America, the most coup-prone region of the world in the 20th century, have managed to shake off the habit.

It is hard to avoid comparing the events in Sudan with Egypt and Zimbabwe — instances in which mass action toppled autocrats but without the realization of full regime change. The next few weeks and months will test protestors’ patience and the overall organizational capacity of Sudan’s Civil Society.

So far it appears like there is not a high risk of intra-military fragmentation that might lead to armed conflict. I would imagine that, as a corporate entity, the military has a lot to lose should they fragment and/or come under civilian control, especially given Sudan’s emerging arms industry. Sudan has the third largest weapons industry in Africa (after South Africa and Egypt). In the short run, this might be a good thing in that it will create incentives for maintaining order within the security services. Total state collapse would be singularly bad.


Estimating mortality in South Sudan’s civil war, 2013-2018

This is according to the Mail & Guardian:

southsudan.jpgDuring the period December 2013 to April 2018, we estimate that 1 177 600 deaths due to any cause occurred among people living in South Sudan, and that 794 600 deaths would have occurred under counterfactual assumptions. This yields an excess death toll of 382 900.

….. The first is that the researchers use different variables as proxies for mortality: proxies such as rainfall, climate, how much food is grown, the price of food (measured as “amount in kilogrammes of white flour that an average medium goat can be exchanged for”) and the presence of disease. This is how it works: if there is low rainfall, they know that people will struggle to get water and grow crops, so deaths are likely to go up. Using data from all around the world, they can make an ­educated guess about how many deaths were caused by a specific deficit of rainfall.

These proxies are combined with the limited survey data available to give an overall death toll for South Sudan in the relevant period. But the war didn’t cause all those deaths. It didn’t even cause most of them. Many deaths can be attributed to old age and natural causes; others to poverty and diseases such as malaria that would have happened regardless of the conflict.

Here is a summary of the state of the current iteration of the South Sudanese peace process.

And here is a documentary on the war economy and grand corruption in South Sudan.