South Sudan plans to realise a near decade long dream to build a major dam along the Nile river in a bid to provide cheap, reliable electricity and help prevent devastating floods, the country's deputy foreign minister told The National.
The world’s youngest country is plagued by flooding, a lack of power, water scarcity and poor infrastructure, but the project is part of the oil-revenue funded government’s plan to fix its many ills, the minister said in Juba ahead of the 10th anniversary of independence.
“This is a strategic plan of the country, the government has a plan to build a dam for the generation of electricity and power because you can’t have a country without industrialisation,” said Deng Dau Deng Malek from his office in the centre of the South Sudanese capital.
“Look at the country today, most of South Sudan is flooded as we speak. The Upper Nile State is under water. We weren’t given the opportunity as a country to think and plan. You look at the needs of the population, you look at the growing industries,” he said.
Mr Malek, who was appointed by President Salva Kiir Mayardit in 2018, said the Irrigation Ministry has been instructed to start conducting initial studies to help draft plans – including how tall the dam will need to be, the size of the reservoir behind the structure and the number of turbines it could power.
“We will take into consideration, when building the dam, the environmental impact and the hydrological aspect. You look at the sustainability of it, you look at the neighbourhood, you can’t do that overnight. You also anticipate the problems that might come ahead,” he said.
South Sudan came into existence as a country a decade ago following a referendum with unbound ambitions – including building such major hydroelectric dams – but descended into civil war two years later.
The fighting killed close 400,000 people and displaced nearly 3 million but also brought projects like building a dam to a halt and stopped or severely delayed other reconstruction attempts in the water and irrigation sector. In 2018, the warring sides signed a peace deal and now say they are focused on fixing the country.
“We have been kept at war for many years. From 2013 until today, there’s still some fighting – we have just reached a peace agreement now. We are trying to restructure and to see how the country will be able to move,” he said.
Water experts, however, say the dam project was also delayed because of an unreasonable scope and inadequate early planning.
South Sudan sits on the borders of Ethiopia to the east, and Sudan and Egypt to the north.
Through the country flows the White Nile – one of the two main tributaries feeding the Nile River that meets and mixes near Khartoum with the Blue Nile that flows from the Ethiopian highlands.
Seasonal rain pounds South Sudan’s 10 states for at least seven months of the year, sending massive cascades of water into the White Nile, but also causing damaging flooding.
‘It’s a Sovereign right’
Ethiopia’s $5bn Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, soon to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric-power project, has caused friction with downstream neighbours Sudan and Egypt.
On whether South Sudan’s proposed dam might also cause issues with Sudan and Egypt, Mr Malek echoed his counterparts in Addis Ababa in saying that it was their prerogative to use the water resource.
Addressing the standoff between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbours over its mega dam project, Mr Malek urged co-operation and dialogue.
“The Nile water shouldn’t be a curse but a peaceful, God-given commodity to the region. Our view, as a government, we encourage Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to discuss and have a better dialogue to arrive to acceptable solutions. To accommodate what Ethiopia wants to do to the coming generations, but also accommodate the fears of Sudan and fears of Egypt.”
While Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has said the country will take any step needed to protect its national security, he has called for cooler heads in the face of threats of military action against Ethiopia to stop the filling of the dam without a lasting agreement.
Mr Malek said military solutions should never be the answer.
“Any source of water can cause a problem to most of these countries but we don’t encourage a military solution to the crisis – this shouldn’t be the answer to that,” he said.
The plans in Juba to, in effect, take the keys to the gates of another Nile River Dam could rankle officials downstream.
Officials in Egypt did not respond to requests for comment on the project from The National.
But Sudanese Irrigation Ministry spokesman, Osama Abu Shanab, said: “This is the first time I hear of it. I have received no information on plans to build dams in South Sudan. They would have notified us if they had such plans. South Sudan will not implement plans to build dams on the White Nile without first notifying us and the Egyptians.”
‘We have the money’
One major question for a large infrastructure project will always be funding. This question will be especially pressing for South Sudan given that despite the agreement to end the civil war it is still under crippling international sanctions.
Senior government officials have also been hit with sanctions from the US for human rights abuses and corruption.
Mr Malek denounced the moves.
“As for the sanctions, in our view, they are a tool that has been used to intimidate and affect the population. If you continue to impose sanctions, more rebellions will come to remove the government today, because they will think, since the UN and America are putting sanctions on this government, then let’s take it out, let’s fight the government,” he said.
He said South Sudan plans to seek foreign investment to help build the dam, mainly from China.
He added China had been the country's main foreign investor over the past decade, with huge joint ventures launched by the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
Ultimately, though, he insisted that oil revenue gives his country the money to build the major dam on the Nile even though it remains poor with little or no infrastructure.
“We have vast national resources. We have oil, mineral deposits, the forests, agriculture, livestock and human resources – we have the money.”