South Sudan and the future of Canal Jonglei

Jonglei CanalJonglei Canal

Opinion by: Bol Gatkuoth Kol

Much attention has been given to the prospect of war between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt over the waters of the Nile.  But the Nile basin and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) involve ten countries with Eritrea participating as an observer.  Also largely absent from this discussion is the crucial role of South Sudan through which a considerable portion of the White Nile flows.  Moreover, South Sudan is a new state and its position on this vital issue is not well understood and the crucial Nile water treaties were signed long before the country even came into existence.  This paper intends to address that absence.  

Historical context

The White Nile journey starting from Lake Victoria in Uganda pushing through Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert and enter South Sudan at the border point in the town of Nimule Eastern Equatoria state. After passing through the central Equatorial region, the river spreads into the large swamps, and branches into Bahr el Jebel, Bahr el Zaraf, and joined by a number of tributaries flowing from the west and the southwest. The River Bahr el Arab originates in the border areas between Sudan and the Central African Republic and flows eastward and it is fed by a number of tributaries including the Lol, Yei, Jur, Tonj, and Naam river.

The Sobat River originates in Ethiopia Baro and Akobo Rivers congregate inside South Sudan and continue joined by the Pibor River originates within South Sudan. The combined Rivers call the White Nile later emerge with the Blue Nile at Khartoum the capital of Sudan.

Crucially, amongst the reasons for SPLM/A to took up arms struggle against the central government in Khartoum, the Egyptian hegemony on the Nile water was one of the disputes rather than self-determination which came later on 28 of August 1991 raised by three members of high command Dr. Riek Macahar, Dr. Lam Akol, and General Gordon Koang Chuol. The separation for Southern Sudan agenda had come through a bitter battle amongst the SPLM elites and diverted the New Sudan agenda with the heavy cost of human lives in the movement. The Sudan Republican decree number 284 by President Jaafer Nimirie establishing the canal Jonglei project area and started digging in February 1974 which later on became a rally battle cry for the people of the Southern Sudan region against the May revolution.

On the current Nile water political storms in the horn of Africa and Egyptian from the North, multiples questions need answers. These questions should be drawn back from colonial periods into contemporary political odds which engulf the sub-region of East Africa and beyond. Indeed, the intense regrouping and political alliances within the Nile basins countries on such activities, will South Sudan played a notable role in these groupings? Or current rulers in Juba will put South Sudan water share for sale on acquisition for Egyptians support? Or Will the East Africa community play bystanders from an imminent war between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian renascence Dam? Will Egypt make military action against Ethiopia Dam?  Above all these questions are necessary, and lingering in many ears and minds to those who are take much attention to regional issues. Also, these questions are eye-opening for African regional debates on the Nile water crisis.      

From the onset, the Sudanese and Egyptians share Nile valley civilizations for many years but each regime comes with its political outlook to those relations. The Nile water agreements and the border demarcation were conducted by the British when they controlled both Sudan and Egypt. The British on behalf of its two colonies monopolize water resources against other members of states of the Nile. The Afro-Arab of the Sudan and Egypt were deeply involved as middlemen during slave trades against black African tribes in Sudan. The relation has never been smooth with the rest of Sudanese till reason time. All successive Egyptian regimes had been stood against the interest of non-Afro Arab in Sudan for a very long time. Lately, Egypt came out with a long-term strategy to divert the Nile water from the Mediterranean Sea to Sinai to the kept the state of Israel on their side.

Also under the existing Nile framework agreement, Egypt had put an observation post to both South Sudan and Uganda with aims to continue as a power over the Nile water resource. On current political intensity in the horn of Africa, Egypt continues resorting to using old subcontracted regional hegemony during the cold war period playing a broker style between African and western countries. Above all, Egyptians as a political force within the Arab league dominating after collapsing of Libya under Gadhafi who was more close to Sub-Saharan African nations. Rarely, no country from North Africa will have a strong stand against Egypt to rally the Arab league to face Ethiopia with military action. On the other hand, Sudan has a long-term strategic plan to construct a supper pipe from the Northern state of Atbara to the red sea and sell freshwater to Saudi Arabia.

In 1979, Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia had exchanged bitter words when ruler Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam an allied to Soviet Union Communist state prepared to contract USSR to build a Dam on the Sudan border that triggered a fear of both Egypt and Sudan. On the other hand, South Sudan and Uganda have full control of the White Nile and its major offshoots that amassing in the country and further its journey to Khartoum. In fact, a huge reservoir of swarms slurping water from White Nile Chanel reserving at Jonglei swarms and Machar Marches at Sobat river, (Collins 2002 p-196).

South Sudan swarms siphon a huge amount of water during the rainy season and later wasted during the dry season with a lack of reservoirs and water storage. Also non-existence of mechanize agriculture schemes for rural development particularly in the regional government of Southern Sudan and continue backward after achieving its independent state today. The misuse of resources and lack of respect for government institutions by the Juba base government has let some countries like Egypt pry on internal politics to preserved their longer control of the Nile water’s resources. Crucially indeed, lack of strategic planning on national projects to use water hydropower to electrify the whole country followed by physical infrastructure for roads agriculture in the country. South Sudan millions of cubic meters of water are wasted every dry season on evaporation from swarms of Bahr el Jebel and Bahr el Zaraf, Bahr el Ghazal swamps, and the Sobat Machar Marches.

In 1974 at the height of the energy crisis a parliamentarian member of Kenya suggested that Nile water be harness at Lake Victoria and the water sold with oil Barrel for Barrel ( Garang 1980).

The Jonglei Canal was supposed to be the first British project on the White Nile River marking the British expeditions in the region. The British colonial administration had established three regional capitols cities in Southern Sudan – Juba, Wau, and Malakal on the Nile bank that indicate the importance of the British voyage into Southern Sudan. The British had builds several dams in Sudan along the Nile, and these are Senar Dam 1924, Jebel Awulia Dam in 1937. After the independence of Sudan, the Sudanese government had constructed Kashm el Girba Dam in 1964, Roseris Dam in 1966, and Merowe Dam in 2009. This national project was successfully implemented for enhancement on economic growth, agriculture, and power generating for the Northern region of Sudan. Also, it was a strategy from the British government incentive to build Dams in Sudan and exert control over Egypt to grow cotton for British mills and bound up with British imperial interest.

The canal Jonglei was the only unsuccessful national project under British and Egyptian ruled and it was the oldest projected initial early by the colonial power since 1898 to benefit Egypt. Both British and Egyptian recognize the Suds’ potential to maximize the flow of the Nile. Egyptians overstated their anxieties over the Nile stressing if downstream will overuse Nile water their nation will face thirst. Though their concern had overtaken by the British textile industry interest in high demand for Egyptians cotton supply to British industry Market (Tvedt 2004).  

The Canal project was laid into political scrutiny by Southern Sudanese with negative results across three provinces. The later response into political volatilize between North and South and several reasons that can be narrated mainly the pastorals economy of Nilotic depend on swarms for their cattle grassing and fishing during dry seasons. Most importantly, it had brought bitterness particularly against Egyptians who are rock-hard allied to Muslim North of Sudan and their traditional cooperation that remind the people of Southern Sudan of slave trades during Egyptians ruled.

South Sudan regional government under the leadership of Abel Alier was label as a stooge agent of Northern Sudan and accused of compromised South Sudanese interest to Egyptians and Afro-Arab Sudan. The extreme reaction later overwhelmed three provinces capitols, Juba, Malakal, and Wau after civil populations informed that Egyptian security forces had been station in Upper Nile to protect the canal (Abel Alier 1992).    

After achieving South Sudan’s dream of independence from Afro-Arab of Sudan, this nation should stand on its own political right in the League of Nations and continue to remember a bitter history of struggle. Indeed, the regime of the day should draw the line from the ongoing water crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia. The historical record of domination and slave trade history had shown this beloved nation who are the enemy and friends in dark hours of need during liberation struggles. Facts are crystal clear like a noon-day where the heart of this nation is leaning and the leaders must toe the line.

About the author: Is a former MP South Sudan National Assembly Juba. Holder BA politics and Contemporary Governance Birmingham City, MA in political Islam Birmingham. You can reach him on email,  


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