Where is water in the Sudanese revolution?
The Sudanese revolution is quintessentially political, however water played an important role it, as shown in this commentary by Abeer R.Y. Abazeed. With this post, we also join the enthusiasm for the appointment of our colleague Yasir Mohamed as Ministry of Water in the new Sudanese cabinet, wishing him – and Sudan – all the best!
Among the many things that have been crashed by the Sudanese revolution that sparked in December 2018, there is also the official narrative about Sudan as “the bread basket of the Arab world”. This narrative is based on a hydraulic assumption that “Sudan has the largest irrigated area in sub-Saharan Africa and the second largest in the whole of Africa, after Egypt” (FAO, 2015:4). The regime led by Al-Bashir capitalized this assumption to legitimize and promote his agriculture and foreign investment policies. However, in reality, the plenty of water and land have been insecure for the majority of the Sudanese population because of the discriminatory and defective policies implemented by Al-Bashir, who was toppled in 11 April 2019.
The revolution unveils Al-Bashir’s regime thirty-years failure to govern a country rich both in ethnic diversity and natural resources. Water is one of these natural resources, and I can trace its presence in the revolution’s waves through at least three examples.
Water justice at the periphery
In the Sudanese revolution water has been used to portray the miserable conditions in rural areas. I found the majority of demonstration calls from the beginning paid explicit attention to these areas that have been suffering under Al-Bashir’s regime. I captured many posters of marches’ calls by the Sudanese Professionals Association, the leading actor in the revolution, pointing at the severe challenges both in arid and in water-rich areas. Also, these posters portrayed the multiple layers of water insecurity for children, women, farmers and pastoralists. Exposing water injustice for people in the rural area unveils a longstanding issue in Sudan: the relation between the center and periphery. Since taking power in the 1980s, the Islamic regime enforced discriminatory polices on access to resources, in the interests of the Arab and Muslim elites located at the center.
Water infrastructures in the conflict
Protestors also demonstrated against the unsound water policies mostly related to dam constructions and their destructive consequences in terms of forced displacement. I came across some Facebook posts demanded cleaning the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation and Electricity as well as the Dam Implementation Unit from Al-Bashir’s patrons.
Moreover, the affected people from Merowe dam (Manaseer people) and people from New Halfa travelled to Khartoum to join and support the sit-in that had started in 6th April, 2019. They raised the rights of dams’ victims in addition to the corruption in plantation companies (ex. sugarcane).
On the other side, stalemating the public services is one of counter-strategies by the Transnational Military Council (TMC) that took the authority after Al-Bashir. The TMC blocked water and electricity from neighborhoods. As a result of water shortage with hot weather, the price of ice cubes had been rocketed from 70 Sudanese pound (1.55 USD) to 300-500 Sudanese Pound (7- 11 USD) per cube. Some of the sellers exploited the situation to gain more profits, and some of them were also pro-Al-Bashir regime and worked against the revolution. But other while other sellers complained about electricity blackout and gas shortage that forced them to stop their ice-factories.
Nonetheless, the dreadful result of blocking water occurred in El-Gadarif on 11 May 2019 with a dispute erupting between two groups competing to get freshwater. Given their different ethnic background, the dispute escalated to an ethnic conflict and ended with with one person killed and a number of casualties. Despite these atrocious impacts of the TMC strategies, the revolution found its own way to break these stalemates.
To get ice at a reasonable price, a youth initiative in Kassala call to people to make ice at home tath was later delivered by the youth for free to other neighborhoods and to the sit-in. And to counter the potential ethnic conflict in El-Gadarif, the posts on social media depicted photos of reconciliation in the next day of the dispute. Additionally, the statement by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) accused the ´counter-revolution forces´ who had been blocking freshwater in neighborhoods to exhaust protestors. The FFC also recalled that the revolution is built on peaceful strategies and invited people not be drawn into social or ethnic conflicts.
Water at the sit-in
The Third example is about water inside the sit-in place in front of the Army Headquarter which had started in 6th April 2019. The temperature in Khartoum was very high and protesters got dehydrated quickly. The calls for water donation went viral in social media and the response was quick. Many pictures showed the donation of water bottles and tanks; what’s more, the protestors extended water pipelines and made tap water around tents in the sit-in.
These informal – or “revolutionary” – allowed the sit-in to continue for three months until the 3rd June 2019. At that time the rainy season was approaching; the protesters and the organizers of the sit-in were aware of the risk of rain for the tents and the physical arrangements in the sit-in. So they took precautions such as temporary cuts of power supply during heavy rains, or cleaning of drainage on the roads’ sides.
These examples recall that Sudanese have unequal and uneven access to water, and that the infrastructures built by Al-Bashir’s regime – dams, large irrigation schemes or urban water supply and sanitation systems – (re)produced inequality in access and power asymmetries. They also illustrate how water is a latent factor in the revolution, revealing the harmful impact of Al-Bashir’s discriminatory and defective policies. On the other side, the protestors were also able to capitalize their everyday techniques to cope with decaying – or lack of – water infrastructure and to secure water supplies and thus the lasting of the demonstrations and their success.
And the Nile?
I will conclude by pointing at how during the revolution the Nile river has been associated to two opposite representations. In the earlier days of the sit-in, flows of protestors from different neighborhoods were portrayed while crossing Khartoum bridges over the river to join the sit-in, in an atmosphere of political excitement and hope. Later, when the TMC attacked the peaceful sit-in, leaving hundreds killed and injured, to cover the massacre they threw some bodies in the Nile. A few days later people found floating corpses on the Nile surface. This cruel end of the peaceful sit-in generated gloomy images of a sort of ‘Nilephobia’* that I found in some social media posts outcrying to world the savagery of the TMC.
*‘Nilephobia’ is the title of a Sudanese novel by Omar Fadlalla narrates the burning of a big steamer in the Nasser lake in 1983 and corpses laid down in the lake.