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OTTAWA, CANADA - 19 Sep 2023

Q&A: Stop dredging Naam River before causing more damage and carry out studies’-Prof Elkhazin (Part 2)

An aerial photo of a section of the Nile and Sudd in South Sudan. (Courtesy photo)
An aerial photo of a section of the Nile and Sudd in South Sudan. (Courtesy photo)

Tag Elkhazin is an Adjunct Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and has 50 years of experience, expertise, and engagement with the Nile waters. Lately, he has been engaged in several initiatives with the Netherlands and the Government of South Sudan.

In this second and final part of his interview with Radio Tamazuj, Prof. Elkhazin among other things, advises President Salva Kiir and his government to stop dredging and clearing the Naam River in Unity State before more damage is done to the ecosystem and carry out studies on the impacts of the exercise.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: Could this inform the interest of Egypt on the Nile in South Sudan?

A: When the Egyptians look, they do not see people, they do not see the Begrawiya pyramids, they do not see Nubians, they do not see us. What they see is water. I sympathize with Egypt in that they do need water. When the 1959 agreement was signed, Egypt's population was about 40 million. Today, the population of Egypt is over 110 million. So, they do need water, there is no doubt about that.

They tried to do this desalination from the Mediterranean Sea but the production was minimal at 1 percent of what they wanted and very expensive so they abandoned it. They may be considering groundwater and they have very large underground water, but it is expensive to drain large quantities of underground water. So, the interest of Egypt is to drain as much water from the Sudd as possible. The water in the Sudd is over 15 billion cubic meters. Egypt was about to drain 4.5 billion cubic meters of water either from the Bahr el Ghazal basin, Sobat basin or by reviving the Jonglei Canal project. So, we need to be mindful and we need to do what is in the best interest of South Sudan. Otherwise, I do not know what to call a person who does not observe that.

Q: What would be your recommendations to the Government of South Sudan on the issue of dredging and clearing the rivers?

A: The recommendations were given to them through the report of the public consultations. I was called upon to lead a team of very distinguished national and international experts and we had five days of deliberations. I did about 10 presentations on different issues. We wrote a report of 156 pages and the first 35 pages are recommendations. The report is available in electronic form. The recommendations were crystal clear; whatever we want to do with our water, we have to do credible, evidence-based feasibility studies first because there are measures that are not reversible, and if damage happens, it cannot be reversed.

That report was presented to the Council of Ministers by Barnaba Marial. And then the Council of Ministers produced resolution 94/2022 and I have a copy of that. It clearly says that whatever the government wants to do, they have to observe the recommendations of that report. So far, they have not. I am talking about a council of ministerial resolutions that made sure that studies are to be done and that the recommendations in the report are to be observed and the committee was formed, headed by Barnaba, to have oversight on that. To my knowledge, unless I am mistaken, that has not happened.

So, my recommendation to the government of South Sudan is to go back to the report, go back to the recommendations, go back to the drawing board, and stop being impulsive and doing what politicians want. This is not an issue for politicians. It is not an issue for one of the Vice Presidents. It is a technical issue for technical people and the politicians need to listen to the technical people and we need to protect the interests and the assets of the people of South Sudan.

Q: Prof. Tag, How can the perennial flooding across the country be mitigated in your opinion?

A: At the time the flooding happened in Unity State and around Bentiu, probably three or four times that flooding happened in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and it happened in Nigeria. The ecosystems are connected. There is flooding in one place and there is drought in another place. So, the fact that we have got flooding does not mean that we go and dredge the water. However, if somebody thinks that this is a solution, it needs to be studied first. Its adverse effects need to be studied. Other measures can be taken. Artificial lakes can be dug just before Bentiu so that the excess water goes into these lakes. Dikes can be constructed so that rainwater does not come into the river and people can be moved to higher land.

So, there are remedial technical and engineering solutions that do not tamper with the ecosystem and that do not cause unintended negative impacts on the area.

Q: Professor, why would you think that the government of South Sudan is not willing to implement the recommendations that you put forward during the consultation?

A: With all due respect, I think that our politicians think that they know it all, which is not correct. If they are going to spend over $250,000 on consultation, they have to listen to the advice. And I think that is the main problem, that they think that they are “Mr. Know it all” and studies or no studies, they want to do what they want. That is very dangerous in governance. We need think tanks, we need scientists, we need funding to do the studies, and above all, we need to listen to advice rather than just shuffling the advice and doing what we want for whatever reason.

So, I am sending through this interview, a wake-up call to our president that for heaven’s sake, go back to the drawing board, go back to the report, and follow the recommendations, it may not be too late. Any damage that has happened may be irreparable, but we can stop further damage from happening.

Q: Based on your knowledge, what is going on in Unity State right now? Dredging or cleaning?

A: You never bring the equipment before you do the study. If you want to build a house, you do not bring the dump trucks and the concrete mixers before you have an architectural and structural design. You bring the equipment to implement a project that has been studied and designed. That did not happen. The equipment was brought up front at the advice and the will of Egypt.

The dredgers, the excavators that were brought have 12 meters reach while to clear the aquatic ways, all you need is 4 meters reach. Why was such massive equipment with such a massive outreach brought in the first place? I have the bill of lading that brought the equipment into Rubkona. I got it from the border between Sudan and Egypt because the Sudanese authorities stopped the convoy. Somehow, the convoy was slick. They crossed North and South Kordofan and when they came to the Messiria land, the Messiria commandeered all the equipment and asked for ransom. They were paid the ransom. I have the figure of USD 50,000, and the equipment was allowed to go through.

So, even the way the equipment was brought poses a very big question mark. Who authorized it? Why did it come that way? Who designed the equipment? The equipment was not consigned, and I repeat, was not consigned to the government of South Sudan. It was consigned to the mission and the office of the Ministry of Water of Egypt in South Sudan. So, it was sent from Egypt to the Egyptians. That tells you the story. Again, if someone wants to see that bill of lading by all means, because I got it from the border of Sudan, I did not get it from South Sudan.

Q: Was the equipment bought by the government of South Sudan or donated by the Egyptian government?

A: No, this is Egyptian equipment and this equipment came on 21 flatbed trailers and there were 21 drivers of those trucks and a team leader. So, 22 passports were sent to Juba and the entry visas were stamped on them without due process and a project. So, the equipment is Egypt-owned, it was brought by the Egyptians, and it is operated by the Egyptians.

Let me add one thing. I had a meeting with the deputy commander of the engineering corps of the SSPDF who have got equipment and they should have been involved in this because there is a security element there. They were not. Their expertise and their equipment were not called upon to help with the job, so it is all Egyptian equipment, Egyptian planning, Egyptian design, and Egyptian operation.

Q: Was the Unity State government, the national government, or the water minister involved?

A: The implementation and the execution of course is in Unity state and certainly the state government there is informed and they know what is going on. How much the national government in Juba knows, I have no idea and I do not wish to predict if they are sanctioning what is happening there. If they are aware of it, if there is a new understanding, I do not have that information. But if I were our government, I would stop the operations and start an investigation into what happened and why it happened like that and start a study on what is the best measure in our case of Unity State to combat and safeguard against future flooding.

Those are questions and issues that cannot be decided by politicians, they cannot be decided by a first vice president or a president simply because he is an engineer. I am an engineer of over 50 years but I will not decide before I make the study.

Q: Professor, as we conclude this interview, what is the way forward? What are your recommendations to the Government of South Sudan regarding the dredging and clearing of the river and the waters in the Nile?

A: Water is a national resource and part of the country's national security. Water is not for today; it is for tomorrow as well, for the coming generations. If you lose any quantity or share of your water, it might not be reversible. Unless you do the studies, you never know what effect tampering with water in Area A will do in Area B or Area C.

So, my simple, straightforward advice for heaven’s sake, do not touch anything relating to water unless you do credible evidence-based empirical proof feasibility studies and to make sure that whatever project you do does not have adverse effects, either in the same area, present or future, or elsewhere in South Sudan. The big question is, any water that goes into Lake No goes into the main Nile, and it is a simple equation. Anyone or any student will know that because there is no Lake No. Actually, it is called Lake No because it is a connection point, and any water that goes in there, that is it and it is gone forever.

So, the Government of South Sudan needs to strengthen the ministries that are in charge of water, and at the top of that is the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation to improve their professional capacity and make sure that we have enough cadres to do these studies or supervise the studies. And stop any work and be sure that politicians are not in a position to make technical decisions without proper studies.