31 July 2022|Nick Hildyard

First a big thank you to Estella and Jeff for organising this session. And to Mohamed for an extremely thought-provoking and inspirational presentation.

Just to introduce myself: my name is Nick – Nick Hildyard – and I work with Corner House, a small solidarity and mutual learning group in the UK.

I have been active on water issues for several decades, working in solidarity with communities opposed to large-scale water infrastructure projects, such as dams and water transfer schemes. This has included several years of solidarity work with those affected by the Merowe Dam in Sudan.

I have been asked to draw on this experience to explore the likely impacts of some mega infrastructure projects planned along the Nile: and how choices made over the regional management of water have the potential to support (or conversely undermine) the struggle for democratic confederalism.

Grand Renaissance

Many of those choices are outside of the control of Sudan. The Nile is a shared river – and what happens upstream will have enormous consequences for agriculture downstream. In Ethiopia, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – known as GARD – has now been completed and is currently being filled. Egypt has repeatedly threatened to go to war over the dam, which it views as an existential threat.

One concern raised by Egypt and Sudan is that the water flow of the Nile will be dramatically reduced during the period when the dam’s 74 billion cubic metre reservoir is filled. Filling the reservoir will take 7 years: but at present, there is no agreement on the rate at which it will be filled. The fear is that rapid filling – not least to bring the dam’s full hydroelectric capacity on stream as quickly as possible – could result in the reduced availability of water for irrigation in Sudan and Egypt, at great cost to farmers.

The dam is primarily intended to produce electricity: as such, once filled, flows downstream would not be the same as in the past. However, if the dam is also used for irrigation, water would be extracted from the reservoir and downstream flows would be reduced permanently. No decision has yet been made by Ethiopia – but there have been hints by the former former president, Meles Zenawi, that GERD could be used to irrigate over 500 000 hectares of agricultural land. For Sudan and Egypt, the downstream impacts would be considerable.

Even if no irrigation takes place, downstream farmers will have to contend with an entirely new flow regime in the Nile. Instead of an annual flood, which has been the basis on which Sudanese farmers have farmed for millennia, the river flow would be regulated so that peaks and troughs in the flow are smoothed out. Some 4 million farmers will therefore need to adjust their growing patterns to accommodate the new flow regime. Many may find it hard to adapt – the more so since they will be denied the sediments that come with the annual flood, since GERD will trap the Nile’s silt behind the dam. Framers will therefore need to buy in fertilisers as replacement for the nutrient rich silt the Nile previously deposited for free.

Added to all of this is the very real risk that the dam could collapse, particularly if there is an earthquake, unleashing a flood that could even reach Khartoum.

Jonglei Canal

GARD is not the only mega water project that will impact livelihoods in Sudan. In South Sudan, the government has announced plans to revive the highly controversial Jonglei Canal project, under which the waters of the White Nile would be diverted via a 240-mile canal to Sudan and Egypt. The ecological impacts of the project could be severe. Currently the White Nile spreads across the flatlands of Southern Sudan to create Africa’s largest swamp, known as the Sudd. The planned canal would drain the Sudd entirely and transform it into an arid desert, with major impacts on humans and non-humans. The rationale for the canal is that a considerable volume of the White Nile’s water is lost to evaporation as it crosses the 3,500 square kilometres of swamp. By diverting the water through a canal, that loss could be dramatically reduced, allowing more water to reach Sudan and Egypt. But cutting evaporation would also severely disrupt rainfall patterns in the region, depriving farms and forests in South Sudan and neighbouring countries of rainwater.

Some Questions

GARD and the revived Jonglei Canal pose a number of challenges for any democratic confederalist project in Sudan. Most obviously, they are stark reminders of how the choices available to Sudan are constrained by forces – including competing national visions of ‘self-determination’ – over which the Sudanese have little or no control. This alone argues powerfully for the need to regionalise the struggle for democratic confederalism by linking to social and environmental justice movements in the ten countries that rely on the Nile in order to ensure that the will and the needs of the grassroots are genuinely reflected in any negotiations over the use of the Nile’s shared waters.

It also argues for a process of learning about, and from, the experiences of others around the world who rely on contested shared rivers. What has worked historically to ensure that everyone gets the water they need, without upstream user threatening those downstream? What institutional arrangements work to bolster grassroots power and what arrangements undermine genuine bottom-up decision-making? What technologies work to build decentralised communitarian structures and what technologies work to centralise control in the hands of the few? What drives water conflict? and what drives collaboration over water?

Water Conflicts

Many – particularly policy makers – have spun a myth that water has always been a source of antagonism; and that those who rely on shared sources of water are forever condemned to a perpetual state of violence or near-violence. In fact, the reverse is true.  Water has historically been “a catalyst of peace rather than a cause of war”.  Certainly, shared waterways have been a source of rivalries, disputes, conflicting social and economic interests and tensions. Certainly, there have been instances where violence has erupted over access to water.  But violence between nations or over water as a scarce resource have been rare.

This is not to deny that water is currently being weaponised by many states: but where conflict (violent or otherwise) has erupted, it is very rarely cause of an absolute scarcity of water.  Instead, it results from politically generated scarcities rooted in inequalities of power that enable one group to deny others access to water or to degrade the environment at the expense of others. In effect, water conflicts are always about imbalances of power.

And because water conflicts are fundamentally about power relations, some responses – even though well intentioned – are likely only to exacerbate the problems.

Political Trajectories

One response, for example, has been to look to dams as a safeguard against reduced flows. But dams have a political trajectory that is inimical to democratic decision-making. Even if the decision to build a dam is taken through open democratic processes, their financing, construction and operation have a logic that is inherently anti-democratic and destructive. The huge costs of construction require financing from institutions such as the World Bank or China Exim Bank whose interests (embedding free market capitalism in the case of the World Bank: furthering China’s commercial expansion and access to raw materials in the case of China Exim) are not aligned with those of the grassroots – and whose loans come with conditions which reflect those interests. Finance aside, the construction of dams requires an element of authoritarianism in order to ensure that the interests of affected communities do not get in the way of the project. And once constructed, the operation of dams requires an elite cadre of engineers, entrenching a hierarchy of knowledge that generally acts to the detriment of democratic decision-making.

By contrast, the trajectory of responses such as rainwater harvesting is to strengthen grassroots decision-making. Consider, for example, the decades-long, community-led struggle in India to restore the Alwar watershed in Rajasthan, India.  Years of deforestation and tube-well extraction had depleted aquifers in the watershed, causing the River Alwar to dry up in summer months. To combat this, villagers came together to restore hundreds of small village ponds, known as johads, that had silted up due to increased deforestation-driven erosion. Each pond was managed by a village council, which enforced its own rules for collaborative water management. At a watershed level, the villagers also formed a “water parliament”, whose rules included “not allowing exploiters and polluters into the area, being on guard against privatization forces, conserving the environment, seeking drought-resistant crops, and not growing cash crops”. These are not rules that would emerge from a state- or corporate-driven response to water insecurity. They are rules that reflect the priorities of the commons – those ways of social and economic organising that recognise (and seek to put into practice) the collective right of all, rather than the few, to survival.

The success of water harvesting and other communitarian forms of water management lies in their active, daily promotion of collaboration. They about more than simply obtaining water: they are about building society through an active process of challenging undemocratic, unjust, inequitable and discriminatory practices wherever and whenever they arise. It is this activism that ultimately engenders the solidarities that make for ecological and social justice.

If water management is support rather than corrode the struggle for self-determination through democratic confederalism, the need to be alive to the anti-democratic trajectories of dams and other megaprojects is clear.

I very much hope to learn more about how these issues are being debated – as I am sure they are – in the street committees that have blossomed following the Revolution. And I hope that, through collaborative organising,  opportunities will arise to internationalise those debates and create the solidarity structures that will enable a path to water justice for all, humans and non-humans, along the Nile.