Magazine article Geographical

Draining Africa's Eden: As Humanity's Thirst Grows, Natural Ecosystems Are Coming under Increasing Pressure. in Sudan, There Are Fears That the Resurrection of a 100-Year-Old Plan to Drain Africa's Largest Wetland in an Effort to Improve Downstream Flow in the White Nile Will Lead to the Destruction of One of the Continent's Richest Wildlife Refuges

Magazine article Geographical

Draining Africa's Eden: As Humanity's Thirst Grows, Natural Ecosystems Are Coming under Increasing Pressure. in Sudan, There Are Fears That the Resurrection of a 100-Year-Old Plan to Drain Africa's Largest Wetland in an Effort to Improve Downstream Flow in the White Nile Will Lead to the Destruction of One of the Continent's Richest Wildlife Refuges

Article excerpt

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Wildlife and warfare don't mix. You don't have to be a conservationist to know that when fighting breaks out, the natural world tends to suffer, particularly in Africa, where the bushmeat and ivory trades seem to have had a symbiotic relationship with conflict. So it was surprising and reassuring to discover in 2007 that healthy populations of large mammals had survived 22 years of civil war in Southern Sudan.

It's ironic, then, to learn that peace in the region may be putting one of Africa's most precious ecosystems in danger. Five years after the end of hostilities, the Sudanese and Egyptian governments are dusting off plans conceived more than 100 years ago to build a series of canals in Southern Sudan that will drain the continent's largest wetland in an effort to improve downstream flow in the White Nile.

When you consider that population growth, climate change and development are all set to increase pressure on water supplies in one of the world's driest regions, any attempt to relieve that pressure would seem sensible. But critics of the plans are warning that the costs will far outweigh the benefits. 'The whole thing is off base,' says Paul Elkan, director of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) operations in Southern Sudan. 'This is an old construction project based on old plans and old wisdom. If we are to have any chance of tackling climate change and all the other environmental challenges we face in the 21st century, this is just the kind of issue where we have to start applying some enlightened thinking.'

LIVED-IN SYSTEM

Covering an area twice the size of Wales, the Sudd is one of the world's most important wetlands. It's formed where the Bahr el Jebel--as the White Nile is known at this point--meets the plains of Southern Sudan. Designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2006, it supports a rich biota, with five types of ecosystem providing habitat for 100 mammal and 470 bird species, both resident and migratory. Among these are more than 5,500 elephants and 4,000 Nile lechwe, a threatened antelope that's endemic to the region. What really make the Sudd stand out, however, are the 1.2 million antelope that migrate 1,500 kilometres every year to graze on its floodplain.

But its value lies not just in its biodiversity. It's very much a lived-in system, with three tribes all dependent on the wetland for their livelihoods, says Michael Lock, co-editor of The Jonglei Canal: Impact and Opportunity. 'The Nuer and Dinka pastoralists bring their cattle down to graze on the floodplains for the dry season before retreating to the higher ground, where they grow sorghum around their homesteads in the wet season,' he says. 'The Shilluk have a more sedentary lifestyle, fishing and cultivating crops as well as rearing cattle.'

According to Elkan, it's important to recognise the value of the Sudd within its context. 'When you consider its role in the migration of wildlife and in the movements of the pastoralists, you see that it's part of a much larger ecosystem that includes the Jonglei Plains--Africa's largest intact area of savannah.' Together, the Sudd and the plains form an area three times the size of the Serengeti National Park.

Elkan was part of a WCS team that surveyed this vast area in 2007. Astonished at the concentrations of wildlife that they found, the team announced that they had hit upon the conservationist's El Dorado. Elkan's WCS colleague Michael Fay, a veteran of conservation throughout sub-Saharan Africa, said: 'I have never seen wildlife like that, in such numbers, not even when flying over the Serengeti.'

Three years on, Elkan is concerned about the impact the canal project would have on the region. 'No-one can say exactly what would happen,' he says. 'But it's clear that building a canal would create a physical barrier that would cut across the wildlife migration route and the path taken by the pastoralists and their cattle. …

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