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Swamped Schemes

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | August 2001 | p. 79

Peering at a bird’s eye view, the unfinished Jonglei Canal project in southern Sudan seems to stretch for endless miles. Jointly financed by Egypt and Sudan and built with French assistance, the canal’s excavation began in earnest in 1978. A huge earth-moving machine dubbed the “Bucketwheel”—then the largest excavator ever built—carved out a 75-meters-wide ditch, tunneling away two kilometers a week. At the time, the Jonglei Canal was Africa’s boldest and most daring water works scheme, envisioned as a novel way to divert the White Nile’s waters to bypass swamps and thereby reduce evaporation losses. In a region with an unquenchable thirst, the result would have meant an additional 4.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water annually, equally shared between Sudan and Egypt.


Today, the fabled excavator lies abandoned and rusted in the wetlands of southern Sudan. In 1984, civil war froze the ambitious canal project in its tracks. By then, 250 km of the navigable canal had been dug, with another 110 km to go. The artificial waterway would have spanned more than twice the length of the Suez Canal.


In southern Sudan, the White Nile flows into the vast wetlands of the Sudd, a network of channels, lakes and swamps flooding an area the size of England. Cutting through the southern Sudanese provinces from Bor to Malakal, the Jonglei Canal was designed to circumvent the Sudd, where as much as half of the inflowing water evaporates.


The Blue Nile, which originates in the Ethiopian highlands, carries roughly 80 percent of the water that reaches Egypt. The White Nile, which pours out of the equatorial lakes of Central Africa and snakes through southern Sudan, carries the remainder. The river’s two branches meet in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Under a 1959 water-sharing agreement between Egypt and Sudan, 18.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water is allocated annually to Sudan, and 55.5 billion cubic meters to its downstream neighbor.


The Jonglei Canal would shorten river travel between Khartoum and Juba, southern Sudan’s main urban center, expand farmland and restrict the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. Yet environmentalists warn of the canal’s ecological consequences. Reducing evaporation in the Sudd swamps would likely lessen rainfall in West Africa. Draining the marshes would affect the delicate ecosystems of the fisheries and grasslands, which the indigenous Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer tribes of southern Africa have come to depend on.


Construction of the Jonglei Canal began under Sudan’s ruler, Jaafar Mohammed Nimeiri, who understood that development could only move forward when civil war was brought to an end. Unity was achieved with the Addis Ababa Accord, signed in 1972, which granted the south a measure of regional autonomy, effectively ending 17 years of civil strife between north and south Sudan. Indeed, Nimeiri had ambitious plans. He sought to build oil and sugar refineries and increase cultivated land by 3.5 million acres. But grand development expectations soon gave way to corruption and a ballooning foreign trade deficit.


In 1983, Nimeiri imposed his brand of shari’a (Islamic law) across the entire country and revoked southern autonomy. Southern Sudanese factions took up arms for yet another civil war. Early attacks by the newly formed Sudan People’s Liberation Army, led by John Garang de Mabior, were against the Jonglei Canal and oil exploration projects. By drying out the swamps, the canal would not only open up the entire Sudd area for mechanized farming, making Sudan what Nimeiri termed the “breadbasket of the Middle East and Africa,” it would allow government troops from the north to quickly move military equipment and troops into the south. 

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