The basic rule of water supply in semi-arid lands is that whoever controls the water, controls the people. New water resources provide as many perils as hopes depending on the politics of how the water is controlled.
The recent discovery of a vast underground lake in the far north of Darfur has been acclaimed by commentators as a Godsend—a potential solution to Darfur’s war. The lake was discovered by the geologist and specialist in remote sensing, Dr Farouk El-Baz of Boston University, who is confident that, based on similar discoveries of fossil water in other parts of the Sahara, there are vast reserves under the desert. In adjoining Libya, the "Great Man-Made River Project" is irrigating millions of acres of agricultural land and providing water to cities and industry. In Egypt, the Toskha project has pumped water from Lake Nasser (behind the Aswan Dam) to create an oasis akin to a second Nile Valley that could provide land for as many as six million people, resettled from densely-populated parts of the country. Could Darfur’s aquifer provide a similar solution to the region’s poverty and under-development?
Could we be more ambitious still and hope that more water can actually help resolve Darfur’s conflict? The rationale: if scarcity of water (due to natural aridity, plus cyclical drought, ecological degradation driven by a population explosion, or climate change) is a root cause of the conflict, then surely more water means less conflict. There is plenty of evidence for conflict over water in Darfur—but less reason to hope that more water will resolve conflict.
Forty years ago, water shortages sparked some of the earliest clashes in Darfur’s long descent into violence. In 1967 and 1968, Rizeigat Arab and Zaghawa herders fought over the control of a reservoir at Rahad Gineik. Both groups needed to water their camels on the long trek to and from the desert-edge pastures, and Rahad Gineik served as the main source of water on the central one of just three routes along which herders could move their animals north during the rains, and south again later in the year. After three days of fighting, the Sudan government convened a reconciliation committee and promised investment—more wells and better reservoirs—along the livestock corridor. (See Julie Flint’s and my Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, page 7.)
The government’s mediation effort in Gineik was well-meaning but ineffective. One reason it failed was that a year later the socialist government of Col. Jaafar Nimeiri seized power and declared that tribal administration was outmoded and that all land and natural resources belonged solely to the state which would administer them for the good of all the people, irrespective of ethnicity. This bold experiment at sweeping away traditional allegiances might have worked, but only if the government had provided the resources necessary to satisfy the demands of the competing groups. That it failed to do. The early 1970s saw an attempt to upgrade Darfur’s schools, clinics and water resources, but this effort was quickly abandoned when the push for development was overtaken by corruption and a debt crisis. For well over thirty years, while the human and animal population has increased, the region’s water resources have deteriorated.
Successive governments have disappointed Darfurians with failed promises of social and economic development. Arab and non-Arab Darfurians alike demand that a peace settlement includes a huge developmental effort including digging these long-promised wells. Last year’s Darfur Peace Agreement contains provisions for a big increase in Darfur’s development budget—which have not been implemented.
El-Baz’s discovery of a vast underground lake under the sands of the far north of Darfur may mean that much more water is available for the region’s development than hitherto believed. (Some scientists contend that the aquifer has in fact run dry, because it will not have been replenished for thousands of years—El-Baz is less pessimistic.) Some commentators have rushed to applaud the discovery as a magic bullet to end the war. But Sudan’s history with irrigation mega-projects counsels caution: the aquifer is no solution to the region’s crisis, and if mishandled could even worsen the conflict.
The aquifer lies hundred of miles to the north of any permanently inhabited areas of Darfur, under an area of true desert where the only human activities are a trade route to Libya and a salt mine. No-one will be dispossessed by the extraction effort. Pumping the water to the surface will not be technically difficult. The engineering challenge will be piping it to the inhabited parts of Darfur, or creating new oases for human settlement in the desert. With existing technology this can all be done—as Libya and Egypt have shown. It’s expensive—the first three phases of Libya’s Great Man-Made River Project have cost almost $20 billion—but Darfur doesn’t need anything so ambitious.
The key questions are political: who decides and who benefits? If utilized equitably and in support of a development plan agreed upon by all Darfurian communities, the new water resources could help rehabilitate the livelihoods of herders and farmers in north Darfur, and thereby boost the implementation of a peace plan. For example, if camel herders can sustain their herds in the desert pastures all year round, then they will have less hunger for land in the agriculturally rich lands of central Darfur, homeland to the Fur, Masalit and other non-Arab peoples.
Two important side points are worth making before resuming the main argument.
First, it is worth noting that many such development programs do not depend upon the new aquifer—Darfur’s existing water resources, better utilized, should be sufficient to improve the region’s productivity. In the 1970s and ’80s, when Darfur was the site of ambitious land-use planning schemes funded by the World Bank, the main question was not the absolute shortage of water, but rather the problems of localized environmental degradation that might follow the over-use of water. For example, whenever a deep artesian well was drilled in the sandy soils of eastern Darfur, local farmers and herders increased their livestock numbers and each well became the center of a circle of over-grazing and over-farming. The scarce resource that limited the productivity of the land wasn’t water, it was the fertility of the soil, dependant on rainfall. Irrigating the land wasn’t commercially viable in these areas because the markets for the produce were simply too far away. (On the alluvial soils of west Darfur it was a different matter: cheap irrigation technology in the form of diesel pumps, which could draw water from shallow alluvial wells, led to a rapid increase in small-scale irrigated agriculture, growing produce chiefly for urban markets.)
Second, unlike other parts of Sudan, there was very little mechanized farming in Darfur before the war—the exceptions being a small scheme at Sagaa el Naam south of al Fashir and a couple of places on heavy clay soils in the southeast. In Kordofan and Blue Nile, mechanized farms can be blamed for social and ecological crisis—but not in Darfur. From the 1970s onwards, government policy, supported by the World Bank, was to promote smallholder agriculture in Darfur. The focus of the Jebel Marra Rural Development Project and the Western Savanna Development Corporation was on small farmers. They were ahead of the orthodoxy—and were successful in promoting improved farming techniques, primarily because Darfur’s farmers were ready to adapt and innovate. In some ways they foreshadowed Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages. The very success of smallholder farming, especially along the seasonal rivers of west Darfur, was a cause of tension—the farms blocked nomadic migration routes. Development is not a social panacea.
This is an important point because it’s easy to tilt at the World Bank and IMF and some have been tempted to do so. But in reality the World Bank itself stopped supporting commercial mechanized farming in Sudan in 1985 and never did so in Darfur. We cannot blame the World Bank for the crisis. Even less can we blame the IMF, which spent the early 1980s in a battle with the Sudan government over the latter’s non-compliance with IMF strictures, leading to Sudan being the first-ever country to have its IMF membership suspended in 1986.
The real target of our concern should be Sudan’s mercantile class and its allies in successive administrations. In the colonial era there was a succession of unholy alliances to build a string of immense irrigated farms along the Nile. The first and biggest was the Gezira scheme—then and now the world’s largest irrigated farm. It grew cotton for the Lancashire textile industry but never delivered the promised economic development for its Sudanese tenants. The British also cut a deal with Sayyid Abdel Rahman al Mahdi, posthumous son of the millenarian leader who had defeated General Charles Gordon in the 1880s, giving him concessions to irrigated land on the Nile in return for his political loyalty. West Africans, Darfurians and Nuba all migrated to these irrigated schemes as seasonal laborers to work for a pittance, subsidizing Sudan’s commercial economy and further impoverishing their home villages.
Since independence, governments in Sudan have followed their colonial predecessor and used development to punish, reward and control. The spark for conflict in eastern Sudan was government seizure of the floodplain of the Gash river from local Beja herders to build an irrigated farm. The flag of the Beja Congress bears an image of the Gash delta from which the camel herders were driven almost fifty years ago.
After the ending of the first civil war in the South in the 1970s, Sudan embarked upon digging a canal to drain the Sudd swamps and vastly increase the water available for irrigation. The machine for digging the Jonglei Canal was the world’s largest earthbound moving object. It now lies rusting in an unfinished canal. The local Southern Sudanese, excluded from the process of planning the project, feared that when the canal was finished, Arab settlers would flock in to claim their traditional lands. One of the first acts of the Southern rebellion was an attack that disabled the digger.
There’s a rich social scientific tradition on the politics of water. Karl Marx speculated about the role of irrigation schemes in the origins of what he called "oriental despotism," an insight later developed by Karl Wittfogel who proposed the "hydraulic-bureaucratic official-state." According to Wittfogel, the need for building maintaining complex centralized irrigation systems required the marshalling of large populations, which in turn needed bureaucratic and authoritarian state systems. Wittfogel also noted that in "hydroagricultural" societies, small scale irrigation under decentralized control led to different and less authoritarian political formations. Could Sudan follow the examples of Libya and Egypt and establish a modern-day version of a hydraulic-bureaucratic state? At present, the government in Khartoum lacks the means but not the will.
Given the opportunity, Khartoum is likely to utilize Darfur’s new-found water resources to reward its local allies with ownership of the most productive new farms. Their tenants and laborers might be displaced people, with little option but to seek labor opportunities there, just as their parents and grandparents migrated to the Nile. Meanwhile, under the flag of "development," donor-financed resettlement schemes could provide the government with the mechanism it seeks to corral Darfur’s troublesome population under its iron rod. Water under Darfur could be a blessing or a curse—that depends on the politics of who controls it and to what end.