Opinion: Sudd water wetlands and the unique fresh water ecosystem of South Sudan

By Kor Chop Leek

The River Nile (File/Supplied/Nyamilepedia)

July 14th 2019 (Nyamilepedia) – This article has briefly illustrated the geographical position of the Sudd Water wetlands in South Sudan, the composition of its biodiversity, its economic important, the different ethnic groups inhabiting near the water body region. The paper also has highlighted the regional interest on water security of the Sudd, its current threat to oil pollution and water contamination. The paper has finally narrowed down with some recommendations.

The aim of the article, is to give vivid short description of the Sudd swamps in Upper Nile, its uniqueness (of thick water), and its role in socioeconomic development at present and in the future, and also the author thought to bring it into the attention of the public screen of South Sudan. In generating the information, the author has visited some reliable secondary sources as basic method to gather data information.

The significant objective of this paper, is to bring to the attention of South Sudan government, various stakeholders, civil society groups, national and international organizations, right activists, academia, and the local communities to avail a collective protection measures to Africa giant water wetlands from malpractices, and pollutions, be it from oil, plastics wastes from garbage, overfishing, and random hunting on its unique endangered and friendly species.

Sudd Water Wetlands, is a giant, vast swamp water body in South Sudan, formed by the White Nile’s Bhar El Jabel. It lies in the northwest of South Sudan.  According to the work of Klaus and Sabine, it is stated that, it has an area which covers up to 5.7 million hectares equal to the size of Belgium in Europe (S. Klaus, P. Sabine, 2016: Oil, Power, and A Sign of Hope )

The Sudd Geographical Position

Geographically, Sudd Water Wetlands covers an area of up to 5.7 million hectares (Approximately 57,000 km2) equal to the size of Belgium in Europe. The Sudd stretches from Mongalla in the south to just outside the Sobat confluence with the White Nile just upstream of Malakal in the north, than westwards along the Bahr el Ghazal. The shallow and flat inland delta lies between 5.5 and 9.5 degrees latitude north. Some studies documented that, it covers an area of 500 kilometres (310 mile) south to north and 200 kilometers (120 miles) east to west (between Mongalla in the south and Malakal in the north).

Sudd Swamps represent one of the largest fresh water wetland in the world (Wikipedia). The comparison of the diversity of its fauna existing in this gigantic habitat of marsh and flood plain is compared to Serengeti (S. Klaus and P. Sabine, 2016). It size increases during the wet season to approximately 90,000 km square, and decreases gradually to 42,000 km square, depending on the seasonal flood. Some documented sources found that, Sudd is sustained by the flow of the White Nile (or Bahr el Jebel) from Lake Victoria in Uganda, in addition to rainfall runoff from its surrounding areas. The White Nile dissipates northwards from Juba across a shallow depression to produce a network of channels, lagoons and inundated areas, which harness the nutrients of the underlying clay soils.

Sudd was incorporated in the World Environment Day as one of the world water wetlands in term of its importance. Sudd ranks the first largest wetlands in Africa and the second in the whole world. It met such a classification because it fulfills all the criteria in the Ramsar International Convention of June 2006. The convention does not awarded status of being a protected area. The protection was the responsibility of the Sudanese government at the time, and currently, a South Sudanese government one, an illustration which suggest that, any less attention to its protection, it subjected it to vulnerability.

The Composition of the Wetlands Ecosystem and its biodiversity

The Water Wetland is a gigantic. It comprises of a variety of ecosystems which includes: Open water and its underground vegetation, floating vegetation found the edges of expanses of water, classic marshes, and wood flooded on the seasonal basis, grass hollows irrigated by rains and by floods, meadows, and bush brush.

The sudd is the winter home of different species of birds whose protection is of regional and international importance. They includes: White Pelican, whose wings can attain a span of up to 3.5 meters; White storks; Crowned cranes and sea swallows;

The wetlands are full of plants, fish, birds and mammals. The endangered species includes: Mongalla, Gazelle, the eland; the African elephant; and the Shoe bill stork. The research conducted, found that, the giant herds of peripatetic mammals subsist upon the grass growing in the wetlands during the dry seasons.

Some studies complied a scientific research about the biodiversity found in the region. In 2007, the first compiled report in 25 years was jointly published by Government of Southern and a USA-based Wild Life Conservation Society about the biodiversity found in Southern Sudan.  One of the America Researcher participated in the report, reported that, his first encounter with this riches of flora and flora left him rubbing his eyes. “I thought I was hallucinating”. He told the New York Times.  The researchers’ counts were extrapolated to yield a total of nearly 1.5 million gazelles and antelopes. Among the later are: healthy populations of white-eared Kobs, found only in Southern Wetlands, and in Uganda. These animals covers an expanses of 80 kilometers in length and 50 kilometers in breadth. Other animals’ species includes: Oryx Antelopes which had been regarded as being extinct in this area. Giraffes, lions, leopards, Crocodiles and Hippopotamuses throng the region‘s goons and lakes. This is clearly detail in the work of Klaus and Sabine, (2016)

The hydrological importance of the Sudd Swamps

The Sudd serves another purpose, it makes the region absolutely indispensable. Viewed Hydrologically, the Sudd is a huge filter that monitors and normalized the quality of the water that passes through it. It was regarded as the huge sponge that stabilizes the flowage of water. The wetlands are the main sources of water needed by animals and humans. Sudd is also rich in sources of fishes. It is impassible, thus hindered the region’s penetration by poachers. The swamps becomes the shield protecting the animals of Southern Sudan.

Geologically, the area is characterized by heavy clay soils, highly impermeable with a top layer of “black cotton” vertisol of approximately 500 mm on average. It is also revealed in the study by the Petersen (2008) that, Sandy soils are found only at depths of approximately 30 meters (98 ft) and below, as determined by well drilling profiles (Petersen, 2008). This indicates a very limited groundwater influence on the area’s hydrology (Wikipedia).

The inhabitants and socioeconomic livelihoods of the Sudd Region

The Sudd inhabitants belong to Nilotic Ethnic groups (The Nuer, Dinka, and the Shilluk) who are mainly pastoralists, whose livelihoods is commonly manuplated by the seasons. (Dry and Wet weather). Livestock and rain-fed agriculture are the dominant means of support for the largely rural population for which the seasonal flooded grasslands along the Sudd provides valuable grazing lands.

The local people leave their homes upon the commencement of the dry season. The homes are located on the high lands, but they migrated to lowlands during the dry season to let their large herds including goats graze in the meter-high grass growing on the fertile ground. The rainy seasons enables the recovery of the meadows on which the cattle graze. They return to their original homes in the beginning of the rainy season which usually comes in May and June (Klaus and P. Sabine, 2016).

The socioeconomic benefits of Sudd wetlands, is mainly from fishing, the multiplication of Nilotic herds, and the traditional papyrus mended and transported to major town such Malakal, the capital of the former Upper Nile region.

The Sudd Water Security interest in the region

Sudd Swamps in Upper Nile region depicted as the center of political conflict of interest, as such generated lot of political instability. According to J. Millard Burr, the former Director of Operation Lifeline Sudan, OLS, he stated that, excavation of Jonglei Canal was one of the major cause of the civil war in Sudan. Jonglei Canal excavation began in 1978. It was described to be the longest navigable canal in the world with 224 miles (360 Kilometers).

Some documentations revealed that, the purpose of the canal was meant to bring down the water of the great equatorials lakes to the Sudan and Egypt without the massive loses in the Sudd Water Wetlands, the great swamps of Upper Nile (J.M. Burr and R. O. Collins, 2010). This is to crease the water volume in the River Nile, flowing to Egypt. According to agreement of water of the Great Lakes in 1950s, the accord has granted Cairo a’ lion share’. Egypt had invested much political energy with back up support from her neighbor, the Sudan, to protect the controversial project and to monitor it success till it completion.

The impact of the Jonglei Canal project would have affected the Sudds swamps directly, had it succeded. The Giant water body would have dried up, and would have caused the millions of different endangered and friendly species inhabiting the impassible habitat to migrate. Environmentally, it was predicted that the rainfalls would have reduce to low degree and can affect the plants and the green vegetation of the wetlands. This would have stripped the South’s people of the wellspring of their lives.

In reaction to the excavation of the Jonglei Canal, Southern Intellectuals in Southern Sudan reacted swiftly to the move. Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the former guerilla movement Commander and founder, written his doctoral thesis at Iowa State University, condemning the excavation of Jonglei Canal (Burr and Collins, 2010). In February 1984, SPLA attacked the French based Camp and destroyed it completely at the Sobat ending at mile 166. The French government ordered their Oil Consortia, the Total, to immediately suspend its oil explorations in the southern Sudan. This caused diplomatic friction between the France the SPLM/SPLA. It was experienced during the struggle the SPLA move angered French Government and buried diplomatic ties. The movement has opened license office in Europe but has no office in France as referred to by Burr and Collins (2010) in their book.

Threat to preservation, water, and oil pollution

Sudd fresh water ecosystem is/was vulnerable to subsequence multiple factors. The first episode one, was the long-running civil war in Southern Sudan/South Sudan (1955, 1964-1972, 1983-2005, then 2013-2018). It seriously disrupted the conservation efforts in the Sudd, especially as the widespread availability of weapons has encouraged wildlife poaching, including elephants. There were three game reserves at the time, established but not functioning now. They are Zeraf Island between the Zeraf River and the Nile, Shambe Reserve, and Mongalla Game Reserve. The war disrupted reservation effort on these game reserves. There is no clarity whether the current SPLM led government will revive the reservation projects.

The second threat factor to Sudd Swamps, was the Jonglei Canal. Some of the studies illustrated that, the plan to initiate the excavation of the canal east of Sudd, was proposed by Sir William Garstin, the Undersecretary of State of Public work of Egypt in !907, before the Independents of both Sudan and Egypt. The purpose of the controversial project, was to decrease the evaporation of the Nile’s water, and increase cultivation area in Egypt to 2,000,000 acres, Mefit-Babtie Srl (1983). This is was during the colonization period of Africa before it decolonization.

Further studies revealed that, in 1930s, the hydrologists proposed the digging of the canal east of the Sudd to divert water from Bhar el Jabel above the Sudd to a point down to the main White Nile, bypassing the Swamps, and carried the water directly to the main River (In Malakal). The Jonglei Canal scheme was first studied by the government of Egypt in 1946, and the plans were developed in the years of 1954-1959. The excavation of the Canal was began in 1978, but six years later in 1984, the canal digging was halted, when it based camp was attached by the former Southern rebels, the SPLA, and its only German Machine was destroyed by missile. (Wikipedia)

In 2000, there was speculations that, both Arabs governments (Sudan and Egypt) want revive the re-starting of the project, this was followed again by another discussion in February 2008, but no amicable consensus reached on that regards to commence the work. Three years later, South Sudan became an Independent sovereign state in July 2011, a development feared Egypt for the security of the Nile water.

Jonglei Canal was in fact, an intention, not only meant to dry up the mostly blessed  Africa and largest water wetland, but vividly an act of greed in nature, heavily drive by jealousy and racism, employed by radical Islam, against the Africans Christians and animist South. The drying of Sudd environmentally, would have adverse effect compared to drying of Lake Chad or the draining of the Aral Sea. Lake Chad drived it name from the word Chad, which laterally, means, “expansion of water”. Some theories revealed that, factors responsible for disappearance of Lake Chad were: (1) unsustainable usage of the lake by both governments and local communities. (2) European air pollution had shifted rainfall patterns farther south, thereby making the region drier and not allowing the lake to replenish. Since the implementation of new regulations in the EU concerning air pollutants, there was an observation since 2007 that, much of this rainfall is now beginning to return, thereby explaining the small improvements. (See Wikipedia of Lake Chad).

Aral Sea lies between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the South inn Asia. Aral means “The name roughly translates as “Sea of Islands”, referring to over 1,100 islands that had dotted its waters. It ranks the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000 Square kilometers. It began to shrink when the river that fed it was diverted for irrigation project by the Soviet Union in 1960s (Wikipedia). Those factors need to put into high consideration by South Sudan government, now and in the future, to prevent Sudd Wetlands, not to fall in the same scenario.

The third factor was the encroachment of the oil pollution to the Sudd Swamps. In 2006, the oil production commence in Tharjath oilfields. It was the exploitation of this oil reserves was recognized to be the threat to this unique ecosystem. The pumping of oil was launched for the time in the same year. The evidence of the change takes the form of the rusted signs placed on the side of the road which indicate the present of oilfields. Other is the appearance of the high voltage lines.


  • The government of South Sudan should not accept any plan to revive the project for the excavation of the Jonglei Canal, which is only the major interest of the government of Egypt and Sudan, as this have post direct negative diverse effect on Sudd Ecosystem and the people as well.
  • The government of South Sudan should establish an independent board that would manage the giant water wetlands in the country. The board should be mandated to formulate policies, principles and laws that would govern the use of the giant water body.
  • Measures should be put in place to protect Sudd and other water bodies in the country from oil pollution, since there is rapid oil development in the country which caused water contamination to areas connected to it, random overfishing fishing, and water pollution from waste disposal such as plastics bags, plastics bottles and other garbage dumped into River Nile.
  • The national government and states government proximate to Sudd region, have to regulate the movement of the pastoralists, not to disturb the impassible swamps by excessive grazing.
  • Any other mean deemed necessary to protect Sudd Swamps.

In conclusion, with the attainment of independence of South Sudan, there is high expectations that, the government of South Sudan would embark on giant project in the near future. There is prediction that, Sudd region would attract national and foreign investors to invest in sugar plantations and agricultural schemes, fish Canning factory, Paper Industry, Milk and Yoghurt Factory, Tourism Industry, in addition to Tannery and leather industry, to improve the economy and livelihood of the people. The expansion of road networks, river transport as well as air transport, would boost the region economy and make as a commercial hub as alluded to, by Mr.Kong Chang, a young South Sudanese Intellectual who hails from the same area. One vital issue South Sudan leadership to be mindful about, is the encroachment of oil pollution which wrote series of article about it. It is imperative to put strict measures to protect Sudd Wetlands from all forms of pollutions to serve the current and the government generations of this beloved county. South Sudan environmental and natural resources management laws must be sharpened and account those acted or responsible for its violations. Let us collectively protect Sudd water wetlands, the unique water ecosystem of South Sudan.

The Author is a South Sudanese Citizen, currently living in Juba. He is a Masters’ Candidate at the Institute of Peace, Development, and Security Studies, University of Juba. He is reachable through: korpuoch@gmail.com


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