Sudan's struggling economy and healthcare sector, already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, have been pushed to their limits in recent weeks as devastating floods, the worst in nearly a century, have swept the country. With a record rise of over 17.5 metres of the River Nile's level triggered by heavy seasonal rains in Sudan and neighbouring Ethiopia since mid-July, large swathes of the North African country have been submerged in water. At least 114 people have been killed and nearly 100,000 homes have been destroyed.
"This is not the first time that Sudan has witnessed severe flooding," Sudanese journalist Ahmed Abdul Wahab told MEMO. "Every couple of decades, many islands and villages in the country suffer significant damage and displacement as a result of floods."
The last really severe flood was in 1988 he pointed out. "The worst before that was perhaps in 1946, but this year's floods were record-breaking and the level of destruction is unprecedented."
Indeed, the lives of more than 650,000 people across Sudan have been affected by the floods, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with more than 110,000 hits in the first week of September alone. This has led the Sudanese government to declare a three-month state of emergency.
Khartoum-based environmental activist Nisreen Elsaim believes that climate change has played a role in the intensifying level of damage and destruction caused by the phenomenon globally. "I think our government and those of surrounding countries should take climate change very seriously and include it in their annual planning and strategies," she warned. As the UN Secretary-General's youth advisor on climate change, her words should be taken seriously.
However, she argues that Sudan suffers flood catastrophes because the country has been exhausted by various challenges and economic and political instability over many decades. "The system has collapsed; the economy has collapsed, and the infrastructure has collapsed."
The flooding has certainly had an impact on every aspect of life for those living in Sudan. The capital Khartoum sits on the confluence of the White and Blue Niles but is only one of 17 out of Sudan's 18 states affected by the floods.
With hundreds of thousands displaced and many taking shelter not only in tents but also in schools across the country, instead of September, the start of the academic year has been pushed back for the first time to November at the earliest. The economy has also taken a massive hit.
"The losses have been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars of lost capital from farms to cattle to infrastructure to houses," explained Elsaim. "Most of our crops and exports are dependent on natural resources like vegetables and cattle." A lot of these have been lost or destroyed.
Abdul Wahab voiced his fears for the winter harvest season and the impact that the damage will continue to have on the lives those who rely on agriculture for household consumption as well as to earn a living.
The healthcare sector isn't doing much better. The stagnant water in flooded areas could lead to serious health issues, which would only add another layer to the suffering of those affected. "Water has mixed with sewage which is increasing the health risks and the vulnerability of the healthcare system," the journalist noted.
"After a flood, we normally have outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, malaria and other water-borne diseases," added Elsaim. Scorpions and snakes have also escaped from the floodwater by heading for villages on higher ground, with a resultant increase in stings and bites.
As the flood-affected communities continue to rely on humanitarian aid and food assistance flown to Khartoum daily, Abdul Wahab and Elsaim echoed scepticism about the government's ability to handle this level of devastation and create sustainable solutions to the recurring phenomenon.
"The state's inability to handle this crisis has left many people feeling hopeless," said Abdul Wahab. "The transitional government has already been struggling with the coronavirus pandemic and so many other issues." Moreover, some Sudanese communities did not heed the government's warnings urging them to evacuate areas close to the River Nile and thus most likely to be affected by floods. "Many preferred to stay by the river as the lack of services and development elsewhere discourages them from moving."
After a year in office since the power-sharing deal was signed between the armed forces and pro-democracy civilian technocrats following the overthrow of Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan's transitional government faced mass protests in Khartoum last month demanding quicker political reform against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy. Following the floods and a sharp decline in the value of the Sudanese pound, the government has been facing ever more calls for action.
Sustainable development projects, however, seem like a pipe dream in light of the severe shortages of basic necessities including fuel, bread, flour and cooking gas. "Sustainable infrastructure needs finance and the government cannot finance salaries for the teachers let alone such huge infrastructure work to prevent a repeated tragedy," Elsaim said. "It's a catastrophe."
Nevertheless, she suggested a three-stage strategy that could, she believes, help Sudan out of this crisis and create a long-term solution to the phenomenon. The first phase is to sustain the efforts to control the amount of damage caused by the current flooding and respond to the urgent needs of everyone affected. This would include setting up appropriate camps for those displaced by the floods; evacuating residents to higher and drier areas; and carrying out awareness campaigns about health, sanitation and access to clean water. She added that Sudan's Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation need to work together and put measures in place to prevent outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and so on. "Otherwise the health crisis will be bigger than the economic crisis and loss of infrastructure."
The second phase, she argued, would be to look at sustainable ways of preventing such a catastrophe in the future. To prevent homes "coming down like biscuits" building materials need to be changed, and the authorities need to revisit their planning for residential areas. Importantly, they should also implement water harvesting projects.
"We have many flooded areas right now but we also have areas that suffer from drought and thirst," Elsaim explained. She describing the situation as a "tragedy" and pointed out that some people have to walk 5 or 6 km to get water for their households.
The third phase, according to Elsaim, should be to work on developing an early flood prediction and warning system. Flooding has become a more regular occurrence, but the intensity and resultant water levels and destruction vary from one year to the next.
At the heart of the conversation lies the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a $4 billion hydroelectric project on the River Nile which Ethiopia hopes will fulfil its power needs and make it Africa's biggest power exporter.
Sudan and Egypt, which are both dependent on the Nile for their freshwater supplies, view the GERD as "a threat of potentially existential proportions" once the dam is fully operational. The three countries have been engaged in a series of talks since construction began in a bid to resolve the problems and secure a deal that will guarantee minimum flows of water down the Nile.
Prior to the latest floods, Addis Ababa decided unilaterally to fill the reservoir. The debate is now about its effect on the flooding in Sudan: has it helped or made matters worse?
"The dam is like a ticking bomb," said Abdul Wahab. "Ethiopia does not seem to pay any attention to Egypt and Sudan and does not care about the risks."
According to Youssef Ibrahim, a professor of water resources and former official at the Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources, Ethiopia started filling the dam at the onset of the rainy season in July. "Had it waited for the peak of the flooding season in late August, the negative effects on Sudan would have been mitigated," he told Al-Monitor.
Many argue that the floods would have been even worse had it not been for Ethiopia starting to fill the reservoir. Sudan's Minister of Irrigation Yasser Abbas believes that the GERD could in fact protect Sudan from flooding.
Elsaim empathises with this view. The dam could provide a win-win situation for Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and other Nile basin countries if the governments work together to ensure Sudan's and Egypt's water security and assess and mitigate any negative fallouts carefully. She added that big question marks remain regarding the impact of the dam on people's livelihoods, however, as well as their safety. "The Ethiopian dam will hold back more than 14 million cubic metres of water." This highlights the risk of disaster if the dam suffers any structural malfunction.
Both Nisreen Elsaim and Ahmed Abdul Wahab agree that world governments and international organisations need to do more to help the Sudanese people rebuild their lives and help Sudan contain the crisis and implement long-term safety measures.
"Sudan doesn't have the ability to rehabilitate or rebuild and relieve the damage," warned Elsaim. "I think this is a huge disaster and I think the Sudanese people will not be able to recover from this one anytime soon."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.