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The White Dam: a tale of big ambitions and big problems

Elzahraa Jadallah
In 2017, Sudan completed the Upper Atbara and Setit hydroelectric project. The years of planning and construction tell a tale of big ambitions and big problems.
22.03.2021  |  Khartoum, Sudan
The way that leads to Karay, February 21, 2013. The village Karay had to make way for the Upper Atbara Dam Complex in Sudan. (photo: Flickr | Marthad Salah El-Din)
The way that leads to Karay, February 21, 2013. The village Karay had to make way for the Upper Atbara Dam Complex in Sudan. (photo: Flickr | Marthad Salah El-Din)

Aimed at boosting development and securing water supply, the Upper Atbara and Setit Dam Complex is a twin dam with a shared reservoir.

It was inaugurated by the then President Omar al-Bashir in February 2017, wrapping up many decades of surveying, planning and construction and bringing the country closer toward increasing hydroelectric power generation from 1,500 to 2,000 megawatts by 2020.

However, its completion ushered in a new set of challenges for the local area.

A dam built across a river will obviously have a major effect.”

Located in the East of the country, about 460 kilometres from Sudan’s capital Khartoum, in the eastern part of Sudan, the dam is upstream of where the Atbara and Tekeze rivers meet.

Spanning two states, Kassala and el-Gadarif, the idea for the complex dates back to 1946, a few years after creating Khashm el-Girba Dam (about 80 kilometres downstream), designed to irrigate the New Halfa Agricultural Scheme. The project hung in limbo for decades until feasibility studies began in the seventies, and updated studies followed in 2007-2009.

Building work started in 2011, intending to reduce the sediment affecting Khashem el-Girba, solve el-Gadarif’s historical water issues and advance development in fish production, agriculture and power generation. But when al-Bashir finally officially opened the project in 2017, the majority of residents didn’t celebrate as the dam’s side effects had dented initial enthusiasm.

Environmental impact

A study into the dam by Sudan University of Science and Technology (SUST) graduate Abazar Ali states: “A dam built across a river will obviously have a major effect on the river valley upstream of the dam which will be flooded as the new storage reservoir fills.”

“Less obvious is that the river downstream of the dam will also be significantly affected,” he surmised, adding that large dam projects have varying impacts according to their specific design, geological setting and construction materials. “They are also individual in their impact on their environment.”

The study mentions several potential effects of dams on the riparian area, whether downstream or upstream. While the upstream might be flooded, the downstream ecosystem might be impacted by the alteration in water properties depending on the dam’s design and discharge methods. However, it says since the 1980s, there had been efforts to address those issues.

In the case of the Upper Atbara Dam Complex, the French company Sogreah did the impact study for Sudan’s Dam Implementation Unit (DIU) before construction. The document provides a “Preliminary Resettlement Action Plan that will have to be actualised and detailed in a further stage after completion of an official census of people and goods that will be affected, and a Public Information and Consultation Campaign”.

The study states that regarding the Sudanese legal framework, “The Environmental Health Act, 1975 contains detailed provisions for protecting water and air from pollution and assigns defined administrative responsibilities to District Councils concerning the preservation of environmental health in general”. However, it doesn’t contain a chapter about the environmental impact.

Mohamed Abdelkarim, a resident of the area and an activist on the dam’s local consequences, spoke to The Niles about the construction’s environmental impact. “The dam has impacted the area in several ways. Even safety standards and measurements while building the dam were not followed,” he said.

Abdelkarim noted changes such as flooding, variations in the length and amount of rain falling during the rainy season and the increase in insects that threaten crops, and therefore impacts farming.

They call Atbara Dam Complex ‘The White Dam’.”

Prof Hussien Suliman, an environmental expert who participated in the environmental assessment study by Sogreah, told The Niles that the downstream area naturally contained diverse vegetation that hadn’t been erased by agriculture like other places in el-Gadarif State.

“The area didn’t witness agricultural activity, and the grazing was limited, which meant most of its diversity was intact - some now extinct plants species existed there. All that is now underwater is lost. It would have been beneficial to save some samples at least. I suggested that the authorities make an artificial garden and keep samples from the area to save them, but I don’t think they did,” Suliman said.

Regarding the aquatic environment, he said a significant change must have happened: “We can’t determine for sure, but shallow water fishes can’t exist. The dam also changed the conditions for some wild animals, and they fled the area. It also impacted fruit trees, gardens and seasonal farming, all that drowned, and it impacted people in many ways. Grazing was also impacted as natural grazing lands were lost”.

“I don’t think that the government had followed the recommendations of the studies done by Sogreah upon constructing the dam,” Suliman said.

“The former Minister of Health had stated that the bathrooms weren’t fit as the pits were only 160 centimetres deep. But the Dams Implementation Unit ignored that, leading to disastrous problems.

People usually dispose of the waste from their bathrooms every three months in the farms – they were told by local leaders that it helps to fertilise the soil – and that led to even more contamination issues,” Manahil Edris from The Supreme Council for Environment of el-Gadarif State told The Niles.

“We formed a committee to address those issues and filed a complaint to the Governor of el-Gadarif State about five years ago. That caused a row, and newspapers wrote about it, but shortly afterwards, the National Security stopped the process and told us not to pursue it any further. Samia Mohamed, the General Secretary of the Council in el-Gadarif, is determined to pursue the fight,” Edris added.

The resettlement

After the study and design phase in 2010, the Dam Implementation Unit started to resettle people living close to the dam site. They had Sogreah’s Preliminary Resettlement Action Plan from 2009, which recommended that, as far as possible, World Bank policies must be followed regarding involuntary resettlement, indigenous people and cultural property.

These policies cover issues like eligibility for benefits and planning instruments for involuntary resettlement.

The Preliminary Resettlement Action Plan acknowledges the dam’s multiple impacts on the area, for example, loss of residential land, village areas, buildings, socio-economic infrastructure, services (health units, schools, markets), not to mention the loss of both agricultural and non-agricultural income.

Besides, the building site and camps also affect the area, such as increased traffic, social disruption, loss to agricultural production as farmers and their families being moved, loss in fish production, changes to public transportation.

“Efforts have been made at this stage of the Preliminary Resettlement Action Plan to minimise the displacement of villages and population, to resettle in the vicinity of the present villages and to minimise also land acquisition needed in actual rain-fed agricultural land, giving priority to village reinstallation in not affected karab land or shrub savannah in the neighbourhood of the rain-fed agricultural lands of the villages,” the study states.

A member of the Dam Implementation Unit’s former administration was asked for comment and detail on the relocation process and compensation but declined to comment.

The dam also covered several historical sites that would be saved, according to an arrangement between the Dam Implementation Unit and the National Museum of Sudan from 2013.

The White Dam: a tale of big ambitions and big problems

The White Dam

“They call Atbara Dam Complex ‘The White Dam’ as it witnessed no conflicts or protests from the locals upon construction, unlike other dams in the country,” Abdulrahman Awadelsied, a resident of a town of resettled people, told The Niles.

Some 13 new towns were created; eight complexes within el-Gadarif State and three in Kassala. When the officials came, locals welcomed the overall benefits of the dam. The population had been settled in the area for hundreds of years and had houses, farms, livestock and services.

Awadelsied, like many citizens, has complaints about the resettlement, saying that the authorities cheated them into moving without offering alternatives. “The construction of the dam moved people from their homes and lives, and the whole geography of the area changed,” he says.

“People were moved to those new complexes and expected the services and the well-established houses and facilities they were promised; they expected proper water-pipeline networks, electricity, decent infrastructure and other basics; instead, they were shocked by the poor quality of buildings and the lack of almost everything.”

Awadelsied explained that the standard home was meant to cost more than SDG 200,000 (approx. EUR 3,000) according to the budget: “But when we moved here in 2012, the actual houses couldn’t have cost more than SDG 20,000-30,000 each. The quality was so poor. Relocation companies were highly corrupt.”

Also, as part of their relocation, every family was promised a small project to help them make a living. Awadelsied said: “The plans included agricultural machines and equipment, but no one received anything.”

Many citizens from the 11 newly created villages voiced complaints. They lacked staff and facilities like schools and health centres. Some of the buildings also needed repairs.

Town ten, which is home to about 4,500 families, for example, has only one health centre. It has three elementary schools and two high schools but no staff to teach the scientific track. Classes are overcrowded, and they are short of books and other vitals, according to locals.

The construction of the dam moved people from their homes and lives.”

Marwan Abdulla, a doctor at the town ten health centre, says it lacks beds and medical devices. “We most severely lack staff, and the biggest struggle is water, and that’s a general issue in the area. We have just two general doctors, four nurses, one gynaecologist,” he said.

“As a general doctor, I see all patients. Those who need specialists have to be transferred to more equipped hospitals, but there is no ambulance or a car. We have x-ray and dentist equipment, but we don’t use them as there are no specialists. The lab has only basic equipment. There’s a pharmacy with an assistant, but the supplies usually don’t last more than a week.”

Some people in the towns also lack electricity, and there is no clean water access in most of them. The pipeline is flawed and in need of repairs. “Every autumn, people drink directly from the lake or other shallow water sources and face disastrous health complications and water-borne diseases,” an engineer told The Niles.

Some people are yet to be relocated, and they also struggle. Those living in the eastern neighbourhood say that water floods their houses every autumn.

“We suffer from flooding, the bad environmental situation, and many of our children drowned during the rainy season, the insects caused diseases. We need to be moved like anyone else. The dam made the lives of women and mothers very difficult,” says Aisha Awad, who lives there.

Ali Adam, a resident of the eastern neighbourhood living with a disability, said water reaches his door during the rainy season. “My children are at constant risk of drowning. As a person with a disability, things are tough for me. When people were getting relocated, I went to the authorities to discuss my compensation for lost land. Every time I go, they tell me to wait.”

Adam is not alone. In fact, all of the lands where the 11 new towns have been built belong to people seeking replacements, compensation or justice.

The World Bank Policy on resettlement advises that displaced persons should be told about their possible options and rights. They should be offered choices and provided with technically and economically feasible resettlement alternatives.

However, Abdelkarim said citizens were largely excluded from the decision-making process: “The authorities used citizens to accomplish their agenda, taking advantage of the lack of awareness among the people in the area. They also took advantage of the local leaders who were mostly loyal to the Islamic Movement and the National Congress Party (NCP).”

Surveys were conducted to count citizens and their assets before resettlement. However, this process was reputedly flawed: “Local leaders – who are from the NCP - chose the people. They were extremely biased: they controlled the lists and the compensation,” Abdelkarim said.

What happened wasn’t humane.”

The DIU did most of their work in the dark. Even bidding for infrastructure permits wasn’t transparent.

“What happened wasn’t humane, and there was great injustice. We’re demanding investigations and accountability from the government and the companies involved – a group of about 11 - which executed the project in the absence of competition or public consultation – and with the government’s blessing.”

In the absence of any response from the authorities, citizens formed the association of Atbara and Setit displaced people. In 2015, they, together with Marawi dam displaced people and, in cooperation with the youth committee against the Kajbar dam, formed a union and an initiative called “this land belongs to us”. They sought to join forces and write a draft of rights to open investigations.

The union launched awareness-raising campaigns, conducted studies, and wrote papers about the areas impacted by the dams. After the revolution, they decided to expand the alliance, and now it contains more than 48 advocacy bodies.

There are different secretariats within the alliance dealing with issues beyond dams’ problems, including land grabbing, environmental issues related to mining and border-line-conflict issues.

“We believe that the answer to all the issues in Sudan is a just civil government that achieves sustainable development and invest in the human resources in the country,” says Abdelkarim.

Economic impact

According to Sogereah’s study, the World Bank’s policies advise against involuntary resettlement unless necessary and argue that resettlement should take the form of sustainable development programmes with sufficient investment resources. The project received funds, but activists and locals ask where they ended up. “Where did they go?” questions Awadelsied.

“Displaced persons should be assisted in their efforts to improve their livelihoods and standards of living or at least to restore them,” states the Preliminary Resettlement Action Plan.

But Awadelsied said that local people rely on their relatives in cities for support after losing their financial stability.

Murtada Ahmed, a local teacher, says that a ferry was part of the transportation plans after constructing the dams. However, it was taken over by NCP officials, and they charged people unreasonable amounts of money to use it and cross the river with their crops.

They face an uncertain future.”

That led many people to stop cultivating crops and abandon their lands. “Before moving the villages, we had markets. We still don’t have an official market, but people made a local market on their own, yet the authorities still take taxes and fees from them”.

Abdurrahman Faki, a teacher from the area, told The Niles that resettlement authorities asked people about their income sources, jobs and houses, which should have subsequently been replaced. “They cheated people,” he added, pointing out that authorities only compensated people with marriage certificates, regardless of what they had owned before their relocation.

“The property in which housing schemes are built belong to other people. I have the legal papers for two lands. We went to court and got orders to retain our properties occupied by corrupt individuals loyal to the previous regime. It’s four years now, and we couldn’t implement those orders. In total, 700 families in the eastern neighbourhood lost their rights. They face an uncertain future”.

Musatim Musa, who also lives in the eastern neighbourhood, says that authorities even oppressed those who tried to speak out: “When the displacement happened, they came with security forces, and any of us who complained were arrested. When we went to our farmlands, we were met with force and thrown out. We blame our local committee; they are the ones who cheated us. I am married and wasn’t compensated, while their children as young as six have houses. We demand that the committee be held accountable, and we can prove our cases,” he said, adding that favouritism by local leaders is the reason why they lost out.

New administration

After the revolution, a change of administration occurred in the DIU, Eng. Ahmed Sidig spoke to The Niles in April 2020, shortly after being appointed as the DIU’s new Dams and Reservoirs manager.

He stated that most of the information on the resettlement belongs to the resettlement committee, adding that as he’s new to his position, he can’t comment on past projects.

Regarding the environmental problems and health hazards people suffer from, Sidig says that every reservoir was studied to determine if the area people should be relocated to is suitable.

“When DCUAP was constructed, people didn’t follow the instructions and weren’t committed,” he said.

Lessons learnt

Adam Babicker, a professor in el-Gadarif University who participated in the study of social impact, told The Niles that the dam’s issues would have been avoided if they had adhered to the studies’ recommendations by Sogreah.

This is a political issue.”

“It seems that the unit only did the studies to be able to access funds,” he said, adding that the community that lost their farms and livelihoods should have been more adequately compensated.

“The health problems due to restrooms in the rainy season could’ve also been avoided by building houses to good standards. Authorities knew that the people of the area are simple-minded and peaceful, so they mistreated them. This is a political issue,” he told The Niles.

Along with the loss and injustice people experienced, some of their current issues are pressing: “Residents in all the 11 towns currently suffer from water shortages as the water stations rely on electricity and gasoline. Why didn’t they use the electricity produced by the dam to solve the water issues,” Adam asked.

He added that authorities need to prevent possible clashes between residents from different backgrounds and who are struggling to survive with limited resources.

Although many continue to seek justice, they have still not received a clear response from the new government.


[This in-depth report was realised with an additional grant from IHE Delft & InfoNile]

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A boat cannot go forward if each rows his own way
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