Opinion | South Sudan and the future of Jonglei Canal

Jonglei Canal and Bucket wheel Digger. Credit, Gettyimages

By Bol Gatkuoth Kol

Opinion—Much attention has been given to the prospect of war between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt over the waters of the Nile. But the Nile basin and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) involves ten countries with Eritrea participating as an observer. Also largely absent from this discussion is the crucial role of South Sudan through which a considerable portion of the White Nile flows. Moreover, South Sudan is a new state and its position on this vital issue is not well understood and the crucial Nile water treaties were signed long before the country even came into existence. This paper intends to address that absence.

Historical context:

The White Nile journey starting from Lake Victoria in Uganda pushing through Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert and enter South Sudan at the border point in town of Nimule eastern Equatoria state. After passing through the central Equatorial region, the river spreads into the large swamps, and branches into Bahr el Jebel, Bahr el Zaraf, and join by a number of tributaries flowing from the west and the southwest. The River Bahr el Arab originate in the border areas between the Sudan and the Central African Republic and flows eastward and it is fed by a number of tributaries including the Lol, Yei, Jur, Tonj and Naam river.

The Sobat River originates in Ethiopia Baro and Akobo Rivers congregate inside South Sudan and continue joined by the Pibor River originates within South Sudan. The combined Rivers call the White Nile that later emerge with the Blue Nile at Khartoum the capital of the Sudan.

Crucially, amongst the reasons for SPLM/A to took up arms struggle against central government in Khartoum, the Egyptian hegemony on the Nile water was one of the dispute rather than self-determination which came later on 28 of August 1991 raised by three members of high command Dr Riek Macahar, Dr Lam Akol and General Gordon Koang Chuol. The separation for Southern Sudan agenda had come through bitter battle amongst the SPLM elites and diverted the New Sudan agenda with heavy cost of human lives in the movement. The Sudan Republican decree number 284 by President Jaafer Nimirie establishing canal Jonglei project area and started digging in February 1974 which later on became a rally battle cry for the people of Southern Sudan region against May revolution.

On the current Nile water political storms in the horn of Africa and Egyptian from the North, multiples questions need answers. These questions should be drawn back from colonial periods into contemporary political odds which engulf sub-region of east Africa and beyond. Indeed, the intense regrouping and political alliances within the Nile basins countries on such activities, will South Sudan played a notable role on these groupings? Or current rulers in Juba will put South Sudan water share for sale on acquisition for Egyptians support? Or Will East Africa community play bystanders from imminent war between Egypt and Ethiopia on Grand Ethiopian renascence Dam? Will Egypt make a military action against Ethiopia Dam? Above all these questions are necessary, and lingering in many ears and minds to those who are take much attention on regional issues. Also, these questions are eye opening for African regional debates on the Nile water crisis.

From the onset, the Sudanese and Egyptians share Nile valley civilisations for many years but each regime come with its political outlook to those relations. The Nile water agreements and the border demarcation were conducted by the British when they controlled both Sudan and Egypt. The British on behalf of its two colonies monopolise water resources against others members states of the Nile.

The Afro-Arab of the Sudan and Egypt were deeply involved as middle men during slave trades against black African tribes in the Sudan. The relation never been smooth with the rest of Sudanese till reason time. All successive Egyptians regimes had been stood against the interest of non-Afro Arab in the Sudan for very long time. Lately Egypt came out with long term strategy to divert the Nile water from Mediterranean Sea to Sinai to kept state of Israel on their side.

Also under existing Nile frame work agreement Egypt had put an observations posts to both South Sudan and Uganda with aims to continue as a power over the Nile water resource. On current political intensity in the horn of Africa, Egypt continue resorting to use old subcontracted regional hegemony during the cold war period playing a broker style between African and western countries. Above all, Egyptians as a political force within Arab league dominating after collapse of Libya under Gadhafi who was more close to Sub-Saharan African nations. Rarely, no country from North Africa will have strong stand against Egypt to rally Arab league to face Ethiopia with military action. On the other hand, the Sudan have long term strategy plan to construct a supper pipe from Northern state of Atbara to red sea and sell fresh water to Saudi Arabia.

In 1979, the Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia had exchanged bitter words when ruler Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam an allied to Soviet Union Communist state prepared to contract USSR to build a Dam on Sudan border that triggered a feared of both Egypt and the Sudan. On the other hand, South Sudan and Uganda have a full control of the White Nile and its major offshoots that amassing in the country and further its journey to Khartoum. In fact, a huge reservoir of swarms slurping water from White Nile Chanel reserving at Jonglie swarms and Machar Marches at Sobat river, (Collins 2002 p-196).

South Sudan swarms syphon a huge amount of water during the rainy season and later wasted during dry season with lack of reservoirs and water storage. Also non-existence of mechanise agriculture schemes for rural development particularly in regional government of Southern Sudan and continue backward after achieving its independent state today.

The misuses of resources and lack of respect for government institutions by Juba base government it has let some countries like Egypt to pry on internal politics to preserved its longer control of the Nile waters resources. Crucially indeed, lack of strategic planning on national projects to use water hydro power to electrify the whole country follow by physical infrastructure for roads agriculture in the country. South Sudan millions cubic metres of water are wasted every dry season on evaporation from swarms of Bahr el Jebel and Bahr el Zaraf, Bahr el Ghazal swamps, and the Sobat Machar Marches.

In 1974 at the height of energy crisis a parliamentarian member of Kenya suggested that Nile water to be harness at the Lake Victoria and the water sold with oil Barrel for Barrel ( Garang 1980).

The Jonglei Canal was supposed to be the first British project on the White Nile River marking the British expeditions in the region. The British colonial administration had established three regional capitols cities in Southern Sudan – Juba, Wau and Malakal on the Nile bank that indicate important for British voyage into Southern Sudan. The British had builds several dams the Sudan along the Nile, and these are Senar Dam 1924, Jebel Awulia Dam on 1937. After independent of the Sudan, the Sudanese government had constructed Kashm el Girba Dam on 1964, Roseris Dam 1966 and Merowe Dam on 2009.

These national project was successfully implemented for enhancement on economic growth, agriculture and power generating for Northern region of the Sudan. Also it was a strategy from British government incentive to build Dams in the Sudan and exert control over Egypt to grow cottons for British mills and bound up with British imperial interest.

The canal Jonglie was only unsuccessful national project under British and Egyptian ruled and it was oldest projected initial early by the colonial power since 1898 to benefit Egypt. Both British and Egyptian recognize the Suds’ potential to maximize the flow of the Nile. Egyptian overstated their anxieties over Nile stressing if downstream will over use Nile water their nation will face thirst. Though their concerned had overtaken by the British textile industry interest on high demand for Egyptians cotton supply to British industry Market (Tvedt 2004).

The Canal project was laid into political scrutiny by Southern Sudanese with negative result across three provinces. The later response into political volatilise between North and South and several reasons that can be narrated mainly the pastorals economy of Nilotic depend on swarms for their cattle grassing and fishing during dry seasons. Most importantly, it had brought bitterness particularly against Egyptians who are rock-hard allied to Muslim North of the Sudan and their traditional cooperation that remind the people of Southern Sudan of slave trades during Egyptians ruled.

South Sudan regional government under leadership of Abel Alier was label as a stooge agent of Northern Sudan and accused for compromised South Sudanese interest to Egyptians and Afro-Arab Sudan. The extreme reaction later overwhelmed three provinces capitols, Juba, Malakal and Wau after civil populations informed that Egyptians security force had been station in Upper Nile to protect the canal (Abel Alier 1992).

After achieving South Sudan dream of independent from Afro-Arab of the Sudan, this nation should stand on its own political right in the League of Nations and continue to remember a bitter history of struggle. Indeed, the regime of the day should draw the line from ongoing water crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia. The historical record of domination and slave trade history had shown this beloved nation who are the enemy and friends in dark hours of need during liberation struggles. Facts are crystal clear like a noon-day where the heart of this nation is leaning and the leaders must toe the line.


The author is former MP South Sudan National Assembly Juba. Holder BA politics and Contemporary Governance Birmingham City, MA in political Islam Birmingham. You can reach him on email, bolgatkouth2@gmail.com or whatsapp +250787325182 Kigali, +211921298887 Juba South Sudan.


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