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Saving the Sudd: on the frontline for the waterline

04 November 2022

In South Sudan, climate action is helping to heal divisions left over from the civil war, Joe Ware discovers

Joe Ware 

The Save the Sudd protesters pray with fellow delegates and members of Christian Climate Action outside Lambeth Palace

The Save the Sudd protesters pray with fellow delegates and members of Christian Climate Action outside Lambeth Palace

AS THE hundreds of bishops from the Anglican Communion entered Lambeth Palace last month to discuss the climate ecological crisis, they were met by the imposing figure of the Archbishop of Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Bishop of Wau, in South Sudan, the Most Revd Moses Deng Bol.

Standing almost seven feet tall, the Archbishop was flanked by protesters from Christian Climate Action, urging the church leaders to use their positions to advocate for greater action on climate change. They were brandishing a large blue banner that read “Save the Sudd Wetland”.

The Sudd wetlands, at 57,000 square kilometres, is one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world, and the source of life and livelihoods across South Sudan. For decades, Egypt has been keen to dredge the Nile tributaries which make up the wetlands, and also build the Jonglei Canal, which would mean that water would bypass the Sudd and increase the Nile’s flow to Egypt and Sudan.

The South Sudanese government says that the works would help reduce flooding in the country, but environmental experts warn that it would have a devastating impact on South Sudan’s ecosystem and economy.

The canal was first proposed by a British engineer in Cairo in 1904, and was intended to divert water away from the Sudd wetlands to deliver 2.6 trillion gallons from the Nile to downstream Sudan and Egypt. Plans were developed in 1954, but the project was halted in 1984.

About 150 miles of a total of 225 miles of the canal has already been excavated, and last year the South Sudanese government agreed that works should resume. Meanwhile, in May of this year, dredging machines from Egypt arrived to begin to drain the Sudd, sparking an outcry from environmentalists and a public campaign led by the vice-chancellor of the University of Juba, Professor John Akec.

Archbishop Deng Bol said that, if completed, this would have a devastating impact on his country: “The Sudd is so important because it is the only source of livelihood for the majority of South Sudanese. Environmentalists have warned that dredging the Sudd will lead to a lack of rains in South Sudan, owing to a shortage of water evaporation from the wetlands. This will turn South Sudan into a desert.

“More than 90 per cent of the people of South Sudan live in rural areas, and their livelihoods are based on farming, cattle herding, and fishing. If the Sudd wetlands dry up and the rains stop, there will be no farming, no cattle, and no fish, which means more than 90 per cent of citizens of South Sudan will either migrate out of the country or die from hunger.

“The Sudd is home to hundreds of thousands of wildlife, including fisheries, animals, birds, insects, and plants. All these will disappear as a result of draining the wetlands.”

Archbishop Deng Bol observed that, just as climate change had been a topic that united bishops at Lambeth Conference, the fight to save the Sudd was also helping to end conflict in South Sudan. Although the civil war ended formally in 2020, tensions remain.

“The campaign to Save the Sudd has united a majority of the people of South Sudan,” he said. “Many ethnic communities who were fighting one another either because of the civil war, which started in 2013, or because of conflict between farmers and cattle herders, were brought together by the campaign to save the wetlands.

“For example, in Wau, the Luo, Dinka, and Fertit [a group of farming communities] were fighting one another. But, after hearing about the arrival of the Egyptian dredging machines, they all came together, because all of them — whether farmers, fishermen, or cattle herders — felt that their livelihoods were being threatened by the dredging.”

He said that the campaign had resulted in President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s agreeing to a temporary pause in the dredging. “They were planning to stage a peaceful demonstration together in Wau town centre, if the President did not issue a decree to stop the dredging for a feasibility study to be carried out. The campaign to Save the Sudd has had a very positive effect on peace-building in South Sudan.”

Despite the President’s intervention, many in South Sudan are fearful for their future until the project is halted completely. If it resumes, the Church, which carries great sway in the country, and helped broker peace talks during the civil war, will be leading the opposition. “We church leaders were also planning to join the public in peaceful demonstration if the President had not stopped the dredging, and we will do so if the government tries to restart either the dredging of Nile tributaries or digging the Jonglei Canal,” the Archbishop said.

He added that creation care was fundamental to faith. “As Christians, we must take care of the environment because that is the mandate God gave us since creation. In fact, it is the very reason why God created human beings, according to Genesis 1.26-28.

“Christians working together to protect the environment is powerful. Organisations like Christian Climate Action can unite Christians from different denominations around the world to speak with one voice for environmental protection, as we did at Lambeth Palace.”

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