Sudan: Water harvesting relieves pressure on the Nile and saves the countryside from thirst…but!

Sudan: Water harvesting relieves pressure on the Nile and saves the countryside from thirst…but!

By Khalid Saad

  • Water scarcity leads to the outbreak of wars and migration from the countryside to the cities adjacent to River Nile
  • The Water Harvesting was hoped to be a panacea for many political problems associated with the scarcity of resources
  • The entire plan faces the risk of failing to achieve all its objectives, with the lack of funding
  • The initial water harvesting plan included 7,500 boreholes, water wells and dams
  • 2,500 projects have so far been funded, amounting to 42% of the overall plan

Water scarcity has always been one of the main reasons for the outbreak of wars and migration from the countryside to the cities adjacent to the great river in Sudan. This has put enormous pressure on the course of the Nile River, whose sides embraced millions of residents. The capital, Khartoum, within which the two largest tributaries of the Nile are linked, became a haven for those fleeing from the repercussions of transformations. Climate, resource war hell: Some politicians refer to Khartoum as a center for controlling the distribution of resources across the country.

Updated official statistics about the size of the migration waves to the capital, Khartoum and the areas adjacent to the Nile are scarce. However, some studies confirm the increase in migration from the countryside to Khartoum as a result of the outbreak of wars and armed conflicts between the communities that lived in drought-affected areas, explaining that more than a hundred families arrive in the capital almost daily.

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View of River Nile in Khartoum. Image by ekrem from Pixabay

Sudan is one of the most rapidly urbanizing countries in the world. Khartoum’s population increased from only 250,000 on the eve of independence in 1956 to an estimated 8 to 12 million in 2022, when the Statistics Authority estimated that the urban expansion in Sudan reached 25% of the country’s estimated population of about 44 million people.

Independent researchers link water scarcity in large areas of the country with the tension prevailing between pastoralists and farmers in a number of remote areas, noting that the search for water resources ignites a fierce war between the parties benefiting from the water.

A study by the Capital Center for Training and Work Studies, as quoted by Sudaress, shows that about 69 percent of the displaced people and migrants from the countryside to Khartoum were motivated to migrate in search of work, and 11 percent were motivated by the search for a safer place to escape from conflicts.

It is widely believed that the crisis in the Darfur region, which killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million people, began with the wave of drought and desertification, and increased with the neglect of successive central governments in addressing the unbalanced development crisis and ignoring the demands of political leaders in the region. All of this contributed to creating a political environment for the emergence of regional and armed organizations.

In this politically complex environment, the Water Harvesting project in Sudan was hoped to be a panacea for many political problems associated with the scarcity of resources and services in the countryside and dry areas. The project was officially launched in 2016 with the aim that everyone in the rural areas of the country would be within 500 meters of a reliable water supply by 2020.

ة نموذج لحفير تم تجهيزه لحصاد المياه في احدى المناطق في ولاية شمال كردفان حس A model of a hafir that was prepared for water harvesting in one of the areas in North Kordofan State
A model of a hafir that was prepared for water harvesting in one of the areas in North Kordofan State

However, this Sudanese dream, which was called “Zero Thirst,” was only 42 percent funded, and the project was suspended in 2019. The entire plan faces the risk of failing to achieve all its objectives, with the lack of funding, which was estimated with the launch of the project at about USD $850 million dollars. The majority of the projects are also suffering from downtime as a result of neglect and the inability of local governments to maintain the project, despite it being a valid financial resource for local government treasuries.

But after a hiatus of more than three years, the unit responsible for water harvesting in the Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation is now returning to continue the plan through a new contract signed with the Saudi Fund this year, according to the Director of the Dams Implementation Unit of the Ministry of Irrigation, Eng. Mohamed Noureddine. He announced that the new five-year grant worth USD $100 million, financed by the Saudi Fund, will include drilling and installing 500 groundwater plants that depend on solar energy.

Water harvesting depends mainly on the idea of collecting water, with a higher percentage of rainwater during the rainy season from July to September, and storing it for use during the seven-month dry period.

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Despite the delays in implementing the full plan, the engineer stressed that water harvesting projects have achieved goals in terms of social development, achieving security and increasing livestock.

He pointed out that his administration implemented the pasture settlement program by constructing excavations to avoid conflicts between farmers and herders and to secure water sources for pastoralists, but the complete plan faces challenges, most notably sufficient funding. There are more than 250 projects ready for implementation, but funding is not available.

The initial water harvesting plan included 7,500 boreholes, water wells and dams, according to engineer Abdul Wahab Muhammad Habibullah, one of the officials in the technical department of water harvesting. 

2,500 projects have so far been funded, amounting to 42% of the overall plan, according to the engineer. These include 1,090 underground wells throughout Sudan and 149 boreholes. With the funding raised so far, the Director of the General Department of Water Harvesting in the Ministry of Dams, Engineer Ammar Muhammad Ali, told InfoNile that the unit is expected to implement more than 300 boreholes in various states, build about 35 dams, and rehabilitate about 10 dams.

The expected funding for the first phase of the implemented projects is $450,000, while the total project costs $850,000. Finances have so far been raised from the Saudi Fund ($220 million, including $100 million in grants and $120 million in loans), the Kuwait Fund grant ($80 million), and local funding, which was expected to be about $150 million.

The average capacity of the implemented water pits ranges between 50 thousand – 120 thousand cubic liters, costing about USD $2.4 million each. Other pits were in the range of 500 thousand cubic liters.

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The largest water dam in the implemented projects is the Wadi Tai dam with a capacity of 10.5 million cubic meters in eastern Sudan. The second largest dam is the Abu Saleh Dam in the East Nile Region, which extends in the East Nile region, including areas of Khartoum State and Gezira State, which holds about 10 million cubic meters and was created to provide protection from torrential rains and store water, according to Habibullah.

He further explained that the average water retention in dams ranges from 3 months to 5 months, and the percentage of water storage depends on the volume of human and animal consumption and weather factors. 

This ambitious plan was subjected to a strong shock when the earthen barrier of the largest water dam (Um Dafouk) in South Darfur state collapsed in August, a dam that was rehabilitated last year by the Water Harvesting Department near the border with Sudan.

Potential impact of conservation measures to save water in Khartoum

According to the report of the strategic analysis of the municipal and industrial water demands for the Nile Basin issued by the Nile Basin Initiative, Khartoum has a high rate of potential to save water from its harvest and reduce the loss of Nile water.

The report explains that the implementation of water conservation measures can lead to a large water savings by 2050 in several selected cities in the Nile Basin, including Khartoum.  The total water saved due to water conservation measures will achieve a large surplus in demand for water from the Nile River. 

The NBI report recommends that utilities or governments provide incentives to accelerate the replacement of standard or inefficient water installations with more efficient ones through discounts and other incentives. This scenario includes measures for internal and external water uses, but requires information on facilities and programs. According to NBI, it is necessary for decision makers to plan for the development of new infrastructure that may be necessary due to the increased demand for water.

The report calls for measures such as installing water sensors, weather-dependent irrigation control systems, and high-efficiency devices and treatment units, explaining that the level of water savings is affected by the level of market penetration of efficient water-use installations.

The report recommends a quantitative assessment of the supply of alternative water supply by conducting an organized market, social and economic survey, and maintaining and updating the central database every two years.

The potential average harvested annual rainfall in Sudan is about 400 billion cubic metres, according to the estimates of the Water Harvesting Department in Sudan.

InfoNile learned about a plan by the Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation to establish a water atlas to register all the water projects that have been implemented, the new sites and related water quality studies, and become basic information for future interventions in coordination with the states to ensure that water projects are at a close distance to residents. 

According to a recent water map prepared by the researcher, Dr. Othman Haider Abdel Hadi, hydrological studies of a potential water harvesting project in eastern Sudan (Khor Baraka), confirmed the feasibility of storing water in this area for the benefit of agricultural expansion in the Tokar delta and providing sufficient drinking water for the city of Port Sudan, the main port of the country in which it is located. It still suffers from water scarcity throughout the year.

The Khor Baraka project, proposed as a model for water harvesting, would depend on rainwater coming from the Eritrean highlands to the lands of Sudan. The study estimates the volume of water that the dam will provide at about 175 billion cubic meters, allowing the generation of electric power.

Harvesting rainwater to provide water in remote areas 

Despite the criticism of the government’s policies and its management of the water project, it is rare to find a scientific, popular or official position that completely rejects the idea of ​​rainwater harvesting, as many opinions have shown the importance of this experiment to combat water scarcity in remote areas of Sudan. 

Water harvesting projects in Sudan support the intensification and diversification of agriculture, increasing production in areas of traditional agriculture, developing livestock and forestry, as well as achieving social goals in developing rural areas and creating additional job opportunities for its residents, increasing their income and raising their standard of living.

Dr. Ensaf Osman, former documentation official in the Dams Management Unit

Osman, who is now a lecturer at the university, believes that water harvesting projects contributed to alleviating poverty, developing water resources outside the Nile, and improving animal and agricultural production, in addition to preserving the environment. They also contribute to supporting national security and stability, by developing border areas and providing water to ease resource-related conflicts within Sudan’s borders and with neighboring countries. It increases the per capita share of water in terms of quantity and quality, helps in settling nomads and pastoralists, stops their water disputes with farmers, and stimulates displaced people to return to their homes.

A girl who benefited from the Butt Dam in Blue Nile State, one of the dams that are still working to store water after its rehabilitation last year

The Muqainis Dam in the White Nile State bordering South Sudan was considered a model for the success of water harvesting projects for its sustainability, as it depends on the flow of water from the valleys that carry rainwater, but the same region is witnessing a border dispute between Sudan and its southern neighbor.

Technical officials in the Water Harvesting Department also say that the Belil Dam in South Darfur, which was established in 2015, has succeeded in providing a permanent source of drinking water for the city of Nyala, at a time when the city has been suffering from a significant decline in groundwater. The dam stores 5 million cubic meters of water, which prompted the government of South Darfur to establish 10 wells around the dam area with a storage capacity estimated between 7 to 10 thousand cubic meters per day.

However, Muhammad Abkar Musa, a citizen of Nyala, the capital of South Darfur state, told InfoNile that his area did not benefit from the heavy rains that fell in the state this year. 

He points out that heavy rains during the autumn season often damage many villages, camps for the displaced and refugees, agricultural lands, and residential neighborhoods. Floods engulf them without hesitation, and without the slightest planning for their management, and all because of the weakness or lack of efforts of the state institutions, he says. The government should make excavation projects to store this water for later use, or to save preventive dams so that the abundance of this rain can be absorbed in specific areas according to specific excavation works, instead of overflowing and drowning the land: Human lives, property and fertile agricultural areas are the most regrettable damage and harm, he says.

Abkar believes that all these failures and observations are in the midst of a huge ocean of information about the receipt of grants and financial and in-kind assistance from parties, in addition to the huge budgets that are placed annually on this aspect.

Abakar calls on all stakeholders and everyone who is interested in benefiting from wasted natural resources to consider seriously this important aspect, which has a strong impact and influence on the life, livelihood and fate of human beings.

For his part, water resources expert Dr. Imad El-Din Hussein Farah, a professor at Bahri University, says that water harvesting projects have great benefits for local communities, especially since they are usually implemented in areas that suffer from scarce water resources, where there are no continuous flowing rivers or easily accessible groundwater of good quality. 

He believes that water harvesting projects do not have a negative impact on Sudan’s share of the Nile water and do not cause any significant discount from the volume of that water flowing north.

د عماد الدين فرح
Dr. Imad El Din Farah

Challenges of the water harvesting projects

Dr. Farah points out that water harvesting projects may also have some negative environmental effects that require work to be avoided. The provision of such water in areas with environmental fragility can lead to the increase in animal numbers that cannot be tolerated by the area’s capacity he says.

With heavy grazing, trees, shrubs, herbs and weeds are also removed in a short time, which eventually leads to desertification, after which the lands cannot restore their biological capacity, especially after moving their fertile soil and scattering it.

The loss of vegetation cover creates a great danger to these communities and the environment and gradually causes the population to migrate to areas with better water resources, such as those adjacent to rivers, which constitutes an additional burden on these areas and empties areas that were full of life and production.

He adds, “Water harvesting projects, despite their low water reserves, must be managed in a sound technical, environmental and social manner so as to preserve the sustainability of natural resources, the stability of the population, and the security of their lives.”

Official reports from the Sudanese Forestry Authority indicate that two-thirds of the area of northern Sudan is affected by desertification, between latitudes 10 and 18 degrees north, which is equivalent to about 51% of the total area of Sudan.

The government report hints that a number of water harvesting projects in some regions affected by desertification have lacked future plans, which makes their impact limited, given the wide areas affected by desertification.

For Qureshi Awad, a politician and activist in covering development issues, the idea of ​​water harvesting projects started in the era of former President Jaafar Nimeiri (1969-1985) and then in the years of 2011-2013, according to the Meroe Dam magazine, but the project, according to Qureshi, faces natural obstacles by the presence of the rocky belt extending from Kordofan to Darfur, under which there is no water: The Eyal Bakhit region in West Kordofan depends on water in the “Umm Marahik” area, seven kilometers away. There is also high salinity in some areas, some of which is due to oil production in South Kordofan, Abyei and its north.

قرشي عوض
Qureshi Awad, politician and activist

Maintenance issues

Awad, who conducted a field survey of the beneficiaries of water harvesting in the western Sudan region, talks about administrative and legislative problems in the assignment of water sources to the local government, where the localities include these revenues in their weak budgets and the sources are not maintained and stop working. This defect is evident in the Peace Paths Project implemented by the Ministry of Finance in partnership with the World Bank, which handed over the project to the localities, and after a year it stopped because it was not subject to maintenance.

Dr. Farah also considers that transferring all the authorities, projects and services related to water to the states, as it stands today, is incorrect and presents dangers. Farah draws attention to the fact that water management requires national planning and projects that do not negatively affect each other’s water resources or on other natural resources, explaining that water resources are mobile resources and their management should not be restricted to state, country or regional borders. Therefore, management of water-harvesting projects should be national, and even in a large region there should be understanding and cooperation between the countries benefiting from it. 

Water projects also face technical problems related to the operation and maintenance of dams, including preventive maintenance that requires the provision of earth mounds, crack treatment, more efficient water distribution management, and frequent operations to remove dust from excavations to obtain a greater depth of water.

Often, with the flow of water, cracks occur in the berms due to the roots of trees that grow in the earthen body of the dam, which leads to water leakage and the erosion of part of the earthen embankment, as happened recently in Umm Dafouk Dam in South Darfur State.

This incident was repeated in the Butt Dam, located in the Blue Nile State, adjacent to the Ethiopian border, where the dam’s barrier collapsed due to heavy rains, but the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources intervened to rehabilitate the dam.

لاعادة تأهيل سد بوط في ولاية النيل الازرق Iron fittings to rehabilitate of the Butt Dam in Blue Nile State
Iron fittings to rehabilitate of the Butt Dam in Blue Nile State

According to one of the beneficiaries of the water project, the dam has about 5 million cubic meters of water, and its loss last year caused major problems for the people of the vicinity of the dam who depend on it for drinking water for humans and animals.

The resident, Abdullah Ahmed Ibrahim, says, “We were suffering from the dam’s fractures last year, and the water went to the Renk area in southern Sudan and caused damage here and there.”

Funding remains an obstacle to the provision of materials for the treatment of the water of the Hafirs for drinking, as the engineer Abdel Wahab Muhammad Habibullah, one of the officials in the technical department of water harvesting, confirms the weakness of the local financial component, in addition to the security situation in some sites experiencing tensions or armed conflict. Problems over ownership of the land prompted the general management of the project to request the states to hand over proposed sites for the establishment of water harvesting projects that are free of obstacles.

This story was produced in June, 2022 supported by InfoNile and Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) in collaboration with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and with support from the Deutche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, commissioned by the European Union and Federal German Government.

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