Background: Sudan's Jonglei Canal Project

From a bird's-eye view, the unfinished Jonglei Canal project in southern Sudan appears to stretch for endless miles. Jointly financed by Egypt and Sudan and built with French assistance, the canal's excavation began in earnest in 1978. A huge earth-moving machine dubbed the "Bucketwheel"—then the largest excavator ever built—carved out a ditch 75 meters wide, progressing 2 km a week. At the time, the Jonglei Canal was Africa's boldest and most daring water works scheme, envisioned as a novel way to divert the White Nile's waters to bypass swamps and reduce evaporation losses. In a region with an unquenchable thirst, the result would have made an additional 4.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water available annually, to be equally split between Sudan and Egypt.

Today, the fabled excavator lies abandoned and rusted in the wetlands of southern Sudan. In 1984, civil war froze the ambitious canal project in its tracks. By then, 250 km of the navigable canal was dug, with another 110 km to go. The artificial waterway would have spanned more than twice the length of the Suez Canal.

In southern Sudan, the White Nile flows into the vast wetlands of the Sudd, a network of channels, lakes and swamps flooding an area the size of England. Cutting through southern Sudanese provinces, from Bor to Malakal, the Jonglei Canal was designed to circumvent the Sudd, where as much as half of the inflowing water evaporates.

The Blue Nile originates from the Ethiopian highlands and carries roughly 80 percent of the water that reaches Egypt. The White Nile, which streams from the equatorial lakes of Central Africa and snakes through southern Sudan, carries the remaining 20 percent. The river's two branches meet in Sudan's capital, Khartoum. Under a 1959 water-sharing agreement between Egypt and Sudan, 18.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water is allocated annually to Sudan, and 55.5 billion cubic meters to its downstream neighbor.

The Jonglei Canal would shorten river travel between Khartoum and Juba, southern Sudan's main urban center, expand farmland and constrict the breeding grounds of mosquitoes. Yet environmentalists have warned of the canal's ecological consequences. Reducing evaporation in the Sudd swamps would likely lessen rainfall in West Africa. Draining the marshes would alter fisheries and grasslands, a delicate ecosystem the indigenous Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer tribes of southern Sudan have come to depend on.

Construction of the Jonglei Canal began under Sudan's ruler, Jaafar Mohamed Nimeiri, who understood that development could only move forward if the civil war was brought to an end. With this in mind, Nimeiri signed the 1972 Addis Ababa Accord, granting the south a measure of regional autonomy, and effectively ending 17 years of civil strife between north and south Sudan for a short period. Nimeiri had ambitious plans. He sought to build oil and sugar refineries and increase cultivated land by 3.5 million acres. Yet grand development expectations soon gave way to corruption and a ballooning foreign trade deficit.

In 1983, Nimeiri imposed his brand of shari'a (Islamic law) across the entire country and revoked southern autonomy. Southern Sudanese factions took up arms in yet another civil war. Early attacks by the newly formed Sudan People's Liberation Army, led by John Garang de Mabior, were against the Jonglei Canal and oil exploration projects. By drying out the swamps, the canal would not only open up the entire Sudd area for mechanized farming, making Sudan what Nemeiri termed the "breadbasket of the Middle East and Africa," it would allow government troops from the north to quickly move military equipment and troops into the south.