SOME ASPECTS OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS
IN DARFUR, WESTERN SUDAN
A paper presented to “Darfur at crossroads” conference
The Sudanese Programme, ST Anthony College, Oxford university
Oxford OX2 6jf, u. k
M. E. ADAM
(Formerly of the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of Khartoum, Sudan)
A large part of Darfur region falls within the African Sahel zone. Since the 1970s a sharp deterioration of the natural environment of the Sahel has extensively been reported with the causative factors being the rising human population, resource-destructive practices and more recently the variation of climate as a result of global warming. To make matters worse in Darfur the conflict which began during 2003-2004 and still raging, has created further complications in the natural environment mostly as a result of the government’s anti-rebellion policies.
In this presentation some aspects of the environmental deterioration pre- and post-conflict are looked at and options to improve the dire human situations in relation to water resources, plant cover, farming practices, soil degradation and demographic alterations are discussed
The main reason for water scarcity in most parts of the region is the declining levels of rainfall. Records of rainfall from El Fashirr show a 50% drop since 1917. The drop in rainfall also resulted in falling levels of underground water because of inadequate replenishment of aquifers. During 1960s humidity can be detected within two meters of depth in the soil during the dry season. However, by late 1980s it was noticeable that the soil was dry up to five meters of depth. Dust storms unknown of in bygone days became common. Sani Karaw south east of El Fashirr was an underground river from which water can be collected with pails via a chasm on the earth surface. For centuries the sani was a major source of water to local people. But by late 1960s the underground river completely dried up and was covered by sand, as most natural ponds.
The scarcity of surface and underground water, especially in the north of the region resulted in much thinner grass meadows and sparse woodland. The locals were forced to abandon the land and migrated to better watered areas in the south. This forced movement of people, brought the well-armed semi nomadic pastoralist struggling to insure the survival of their herds, into direct conflict with the settled farmers. More recently cattle herders displaced from their land in the south moved to Jebel Marra area. Centuries–old traditions regulating pastoralists north-south routes (masarat) have now weakened or no longer respected.
There are solutions to the problem of water scarcity. Water experts found that the amount of discharge in the wadis descending from the central highlands is enough to insure water security in the region if careful planning and integrated management are followed.
There is also wide recommendation for water harvesting; capturing the run-off and directing the flow to cultivated areas, woodlands and pastures. Um Dafoug in the south west of the region is one example. The surface run-off is blocked by barriers and at least for several months of the year water from wells is available for the predominantly semi pastoralist inhabitants.
Another useful source is fossil water. Some authors have confirmed the existence of an underground lake in North Darfur which covers 20,000 sq. km in area. A previous attempt to tap fossil water from 700 feet of depth to irrigate Saq El Naam agricultural scheme near El Fashirr using petrol-operated pumps failed because of the high cost of fuel. The amount of the fossil water in Saq El Naam is estimated at more than 10 times the full capacity of Lake Nasser-Nubia on Sudan-Egypt borders. It is not difficult nowadays to tap such deep lying water using pumps run by solar energy.
One effective method of increasing rainfall, though moot, is cloud seeding. Many countries like China use cloud seeding to stimulate rainfall for flushing pollutants from the atmosphere or even combat draughts. This presentation recommends preliminary trials to estimate the suitability of the method to climatic conditions in the region. If it proved successful it will go a long way in easing scarcity of surface water, the gradual restoration of the plant cover and the replenishment of underground aquifers. There is the possibility that the needs of pastoralists which force them to fight for resources will be much reduced. Someone is required to set up cloud seeding society, sharpish!
Accounts from 1870s indicate that most of the region was covered by acacia woodland, palm trees baobab, hard wood species and verdant grassland. A century later most of the woodland gave way to grassland rich in wild life. Woodland are important source of fruit, firewood, materials for construction and furniture and gum Arabic as well as providing food and shelter for wild life. Most of the fauna described from the region are extinct now. It is obvious that the intensive exploitation of the woodland coupled with decreasing rainfall led directly to the gradual disappearance of most of the plant cover during late 1960s. The most important driver of this downturn is undoubtedly climate change which precipitated acute draught. The surface soil became loose and blowing wind of moderate strength was enough to up-root the small acaia shrubs as the author had witnessed in eastern Darfur and northern Kordofan in 1974.
Destruction of woodland took a worse turn with the inception of the current conflict. The pastoralist militias cut down mature trees to provide fodder for their herds. A case like this has been reported from Kas in mid-Jebel Marra. The army also joined in the destruction. The hardwood forest of Um Kurdoos east of Nyala, a symbol of pride to local people, was completely cut down by soldiers and the timber sold off to furniture makers in Khartoum. Around the IDP camps where three millions people live, the land was stripped bare of shrubs to provide firewood, the only source of energy available. By the simplest estimation millions of shrubs must have been cut down without replacement. The arrival of the UNAMID in the region has necessitated wide construction operation to accommodate the 26000 troops. Brick became a premium commodity overnight and of course the wood to fire the kilns. All woodlands in the region became free for all and with the introduction of power chainsaws cutting down trees became more efficient. Some farmers found tree cutting to sell wood (and the clay layer of farmlands) to brick makers more lucrative than growing crops. Brick-making should be upgraded by using solar energy powered kilns. The Egyptian delegation to Darfur proposed building two cement factories to produce building blocks and do away with bricks altogether.
Restoration of the woodland is the most urgent measure needs to be taken and a tree-planting campaign should be launched as soon as possible. The local authorities must lead the campaign and stop the destructive exploitation of woodland and pastures. The type of trees suitable for farming is the native acacia which is relatively fast growing and draught-resistant and can easily be irrigated by redirecting the run-off flow into the farms. It is also useful if local authorities and private investors set up farms in rural areas specifically for producing firewood, charcoal, animal fodder and gum arabic while the farms can also serve as sanctuaries for wild life. Private investors can be encouraged to enter the business by official subsidies and tax breaks. The best way to gain an advantage to the environment is by selling the products below market price rendering illegal tree cutting and removal of plant cover an unprofitable trade.
There is also domestic fuel crisis in urban centres where the majority of people still use firewood and charcoal. However, the use of liquefied petroleum gas is on the increase. Local authorities need to expand the supply of gas at affordable prices. The use of solar energy for domestic power is another cheap and useful option.
Farming and soil management:
Farming is the biggest business in the region and is mainly rain-fed. However, in few places water drawn from wells is used to irrigate vegetable plots and orchards. The cash crops common in the lowlands (qoz) are millet, sorghum, oil seeds, legumes and vegetables. In the wadi flood plains the main crops are vegetables, snuff tobacco, melons and fruits including dates. In the highland of Jebel Marra where pine, olives and wild apples grow naturally, fruit, wheat, legumes, cigarette tobacco and vegetables are cultivated. The variety of food plants (together with food from animal source) provided a healthy diet and in fact the quisine in the region is superior to those from neighbouring countries.
Darfur had no association with recurring famines before the 1960s although only small scale subsistence agriculture was practised. Food sufficiency was the norm and importation of food was totally unknown. However, since 1965 there were several crop failures due to low rainfall and resulted in famines. The vast plains in the north and east of the region were gradually covered by thick layers of moving sand. The collapse of the cereal production led to dependency of foreign food aid. As has been mentioned before the underground water level dropped following the decline in rainfall. Fruit production in many areas was badly affected. In 1970s authorities in Nyala banned the use of petrol pumps to draw water from wells to irrigate commercial orchards, because the underground water level was dropping fast. Only in some areas around Jebel Marra, e.g Kebkabeya irrigation of orchards from wells was possible.
Despite this disastrous situation there were no official plans to combat food insecurity and no attempt was ever made to explore possible local solution. In fact the newspapers in Khartoum were discouraged from reporting the disaster! In a region with high food insecurity the right thing to take place is the involvement of the authorities in the process of grain production, storage and stabilization of the cereal market around the year, by growing sufficient amounts of cereal crops in the southern parts of the region where rainfall is higher. There remains the biggest scourge of farming in the region nowadays, the government-backed militias habitually scared farmers off the land and used whatever planted as fodder to their camels and horses.
This presentation favours the controlled use of fertilizers and the introduction of GM crops to increase yield. Modern irrigation methods, e.g by dripping is an effective option to make the most of the scarce water resources especially in orchards. Planting green to stop moving sand smothering farmland, mechanization, pest control, especially locusts, are also important requirements for a successful agricultural plan.
Animal husbandry is a big business in the region but pastoralism is a relic of the bronze-age and an inefficient wealth-making activity. In a fragile environment like Darfur keeping large herd above the carrying capacity of the land cannot be maintained. The demands for water and pasture are too much to secure, not to mention the potential risk of conflicts among pastoralist and settled farmers. The best option for pastoralists, whether cattle, camel or sheep herders is ranching and fixed farming, provided affordable water supply and animal feed can be made available. An initial step to set up animal feed industry is by recycling farm residue. The herds can also be conveniently monitored by veterinary services. In this way competition among pastoralists and farmers is reduced and armed conflicts is no longer necessary. In the long term there is need to abolish pastoralism altogether.
The potential for animal production in the region is huge. The demand for animal products is high in Sudan and neighbouring countries and there is every possibility it can be the basis of a major export industry.
Population density and demographic changes:
According to the latest population census in Sudan (2010) Darfur is inhabited by nearly nine million people, six times the number during 1920s. It is obvious that the sharp increase in population size, while essential resources were diminishing, increased the competition for life support systems. Migration to areas with better resources resulted in conflicts. The government exploited the needs of the pastoralists and drafted many groups in militia forces to carry out its policy of putting down the rebellion and regain control of the region. Millions of people were driven out from their farmland and into IDP camps. Furthermore, pastoralists from neighbouring countries were brought in to settle in the seized territories. This measure is undoubtedly the most hard-to-take outcome of the government’s security policy. The previous inhabitants are skilful crofters and specialists in flood plain farming while the pastoralist settlers do not practise farming at all. Unless this policy of forced migration is overturned the water resources and plant cover in the west of the region will be wiped out and the seeds of a vicious civil war between the original occupant and recent settlers will ensue in the future.
Summary of recommendations:
This presentation confirms that there are opportunities for improved environmental situation in Darfur despite the damage incurred by destructive human activities and change of climate. Hence, better living conditions for the region’s inhabitants are achievable with the introduction of new ideas and concepts alongside the much needed peace. This presentation recommends the following:
1. Management of wadis discharge, harvesting run-off flow, tapping into fossil water, efficient irrigation system, cloud seeding. Successful cloud seeding can help remove an important driver of conflicts; water scarcity.
2. The setting up of firewood, charcoal, animal fodder and gum arabic farms irrigated by redirected run-off flow, sanctuaries for wildlife, exploitation of solar energy.
3. Establishment of state-controlled cereal production and storage, regulation of the cereal market to ensure food security, soil management, introduction of fertilizers, GM crops resistant to draught, recycling farm residue as fodder.
4. Setting up of fixed farms and ranches for food animals, with efficient water supply, animal feed production, strong veterinary services.
5. The cardinal requirement of returning displaced people to their original land and the environmental rehabilitation of sites previously occupied by the camps.
6. Addressing the needs of the pastoralists instead of using the as a destructive force preying on settled farmers.
7. There will have to be readiness to adapt to a changing environment and environmental education should be made compulsory. Authorities should focus on raising the living standards of ordinary people as it is more effective way of peaceful control.