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re‹think the way we use land
South Sudan’s struggle for its wetlands

Waakhe Simon
Toothless laws and a lack of neutral oversight are thwarting South Sudan’s efforts to safeguard its nature.
8.03.2022  |  Juba, South Sudan
A satellite image of the Sudd taken from the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite 4. (photo: Flickr / John & Mel Kots)
A satellite image of the Sudd taken from the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite 4. (photo: Flickr / John & Mel Kots)

The fight to protect wetlands in South Sudan is hampered by the lack of a governing law in the country, meaning that people who harm the environment go unpunished, a chief technocrat at the country’s Ministry of Environment told The Niles.

Across the country, environmentally damaging human socio-economic activities, including oil exploitation, are on the rise. But at the same time, there are scant efforts to protect wetlands – a natural resource that could help protect the nation from impacts of climate change.

“With the increase in population and the haphazard settlement of people, wetlands are being encroached on. One example is this residential area of Tomping and Juba Nabari,” said Joseph Africano Bartel, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Environment.

“These areas have been a wetland. It stretched to the airport. Usually, during the rainy season, you can see flooding. Even the airport itself is a wetland. But now people are encroaching on it and building residential areas in those areas,” he said.

Even the airport itself is a wetland.

Tomping is currently part of Juba City Council, an area that is now becoming a first-class residential area not far from the State House – J-One. The example cited by Bartel is just one among many wetland areas experiencing similar problems across the country.

Many wetlands have been endangered in recent years, according to Bartel. He said one of the problems is a lack of town planning by authorities. Authorities in national and state institutions responsible for urban planning seem to be doing little to protect wetlands.

Before allocating an area for human settlement, or any economic activity, authorities should first conduct an environmental assessment impact – a practice that is not happening, he said.


The Sudd wetland’s value

Meanwhile, the Sudd region, a vast swamp in South Sudan, formed by the White Nile’s Baḥr al-Jabal section, is “endangered” by oil exploitation, said Bartel.

A 2015 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on the Sudd ecosystem and its unique cultures, states they are threatened by various development pressures, including a plan to almost completely drain the wetland to divert water for agriculture downstream.

Such pressures illustrate how unrestrained economic and political forces can threaten the degradation of a valuable and irreplaceable ecosystem and disrupt cultures that have thrived for centuries.

The Sudd could be a great contributor to South Sudan’s economy.

The report argued that the Sudd could be a great contributor to South Sudan’s economy, which depends on oil revenues, adding the wetland is potentially the nation’s most significant economic asset.  

“Unlike the country’s rapidly depleting petroleum resources, the wetland, if properly managed, could provide income, jobs and irreplaceable ecosystem services indefinitely,” the report highlights, adding the potential economic contributions of the Sudd wetland has been estimated at an “almost USD 1 billion per year”.

Estimated to cover an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom, as much as 90,000 square kilometres in the wet season, the Sudd wetland’s importance was recognised in 2006 when it was officially designated a Ramsar site – a wetland area of international importance – by the United Nations.

An aerial survey of the wetland conducted by the Wild Conservation Society (WCS) in 2007 confirmed the existence of more than 1.2 million white-eared Kob antelopes and an abundance of Tiang antelopes and Mongalla gazelle. An estimated 8,000 elephants were also observed.


Legal vacuum

But so far, South Sudan is protecting the environment with too weak policies and cannot penalise abusers of the environment, Bartel said. “At the moment, we are using ministerial orders, but ministerial orders cannot be used in a court of law.”

The South Sudanese environmental act has remained a draft bill for nearly a decade. Bartel said the bill is at the Ministry of Justice awaiting tabling by the Justice Minister to the Council of Ministers before parliament ratifies it into law.

Bartel said the Ministry of Environment seeks to hold a consultative workshop with all the environment ministers across the states and enact the country’s environmental bill. He added that coordination between the national government and the states has been weak on ecological matters.

“We are going to give them an orientation on issues of environment, issues of say infrastructure development in their particular areas. The most important thing is to stop the haphazard grabbing of lands for settlement, and before even land is given to people, those areas have to be assessed whether they are fit for residential uses,” he said.

You cannot be a player and a referee at the same time.

Meetings with the state ministers shall focus on a one-decade plan for water bodies, forests, soil, wildlife, fisheries, and others and planting 100 million trees. He said that they would also widen efforts for the government to invest in clean energy, including solar, geothermal and natural gas, to avoid depending on the country’s forest.  

So far, the country’s Ministry of Petroleum has environmental audits using its Petroleum Act 2012 – the only law that can penalise those abusing the environment.

Many, however, say it was a mistake for the Petroleum Ministry to have been given the responsibility to conduct environmental audits, arguing it needs neutral external oversight.  

“You cannot be a player and a referee at the same time,” Bartel said, adding, “we are going to look into it that – the petroleum act will be amended”. He said the Ministry of Environment should have oversight of the environment and environmental audits.


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