Many major cities and human settlements around the world have developed on riverbanks. There are sound historical, geographical and economic reasons for this fact. Living in close proximity to large volumes of water, of course, presents the threat of flooding during rainy seasons, but most of these major cities have taken steps to prevent or reduce such a threat, and have been very successful in doing so.
One exception is Sudan, the capital of which sits on the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, from where the majestic River Nile flows down through Egypt to the Mediterranean. Despite the tremendous potential for tourism, and the foreign revenue that it would produce, successive governments in Sudan have neglected the mighty rivers.
As well as the protracted civil wars which have had an impact on political and economic stability and are cited as the reasons for Sudan’s lack of development, ministers and officials have spent their time in office fighting to protect their personal positions in government whereby they are able to amass personal fortunes. Corruption is ever-present, as is the threat of military coups as others seek their turn at the trough.
A consistent thread running through all Sudanese governments is that they have consequently failed to lead their people and improve lives. “Leaders take people where they want to go,” said Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former US President Jimmy Carter. “Great leaders take people where they don’t want to go but ought to be.”
The people of the Sudan are nowhere near where they ought to be. Towns and villages along the Nile, including the capital Khartoum, are grossly undeveloped and lack proper planning and infrastructure. Moreover, general safety measures are non-existent along the banks of the great rivers, with uncontrolled access by humans and animals. This has created a number of challenges, including increased pollution and untreated human waste. Chemicals from agricultural fertilisers, as well as toxic substances from mining also pollute the Nile. In addition, there is severe point pollution from domestic and industrial discharges, especially in urban areas.
However, it has been the lack of adequate drainage systems and other safety measures along the banks of the River Nile that have been of concern to observers and experts over the years. Their almost inevitable conclusion is that Sudanese governments are to blame for the situation, which results from decades of incompetence.
The latest floods affecting Sudan have destroyed thousands of homes and rendered tens of thousands of people homeless. Rainfall and the extent of the flooding have exceeded the previous records of 1946 and 1988; at least 100 people have been killed and the government has declared a state of emergency.
The situation has been described as a natural disaster that lies squarely at the door of the incompetent current and successive governments of Sudan. One Sudanese engineer affected by the latest flooding told Al Jazeera that the government “does nothing” for the people. “The rainy season is known to come every year,” said 56-year-old Ezz Aldin Hussein, “but we don’t see the government seriously prepare for it.” He believes that Sudan’s transitional government is no different to ousted President Omar Al-Bashir’s regime.
When Ethiopia announced that it had had more than average rainfall this year, experts anticipated flooding in the downstream countries of the Nile, including Sudan and South Sudan. Nevertheless, the governments in Khartoum and Juba respectively did not heed the warnings and implement measures to avoid the disaster that has unfolded recently.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 600,000 people have been affected by flooding in areas along the White Nile since July, with Jonglei and Lakes the worst affected states. Heavy rains have caused rivers to overflow their dykes and banks, flooding vast areas and settlements along the Nile in the centre of Sudan. Flooding occurred notwithstanding the decision by Addis Ababa to start filling the reservoir behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
This is a $4 billion hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, about 15 km east of the border with Sudan. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been engaged in tough discussions about the future use of water from the Nile ever since Ethiopia started the dam’s construction. Some are already arguing that the flooding in Sudan would have been much worse had it not been for the GERD. They say that given the change in weather patterns and unpredictability of rainfall in the future, the dam could actually play a critical role in preventing future disasters in downstream countries.
However, the solution to the Nile flooding inside Sudan does not rest with the actions of Ethiopia. It will take strong will and leadership from the governments of both South Sudan and Sudan to implement safety measures along the Nile to prevent future disasters. It can be done; other countries have shown the way. If government incompetence is responsible for flooding in Sudan, then the government in Khartoum — and Juba — has a responsibility to do something about it as a matter of urgency if it wants to gain and retain any credibility among the people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.