Our planet’s climates are changing, and Sudan is by no means an exception. Yet, this topic is not exactly ‘talk of the day’ in Sudanese news. In this Radio Dabanga feature, we aim to dive deeper into the far-reaching impacts of climate change and environmental degradation in a country whose economy evolves around oil and gold, industries predominantly in the hands of its military.
Record heats in Khartoum, rains in the North, droughts and drinking water shortages, dramatic floods, the Nile in mortal danger… climate change is hitting Sudan. The Horn of Africa is even called ‘one of the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change’.
Sudanese, however, have many more worries on their minds as the country has sunk into a deep political and economic crisis after decades of dictatorship, two military coups, oppression, corruption, and international isolation. Protesters are taking to the streets on a weekly basis to fight for democracy, unions are striking to demand fairer working conditions, and most people are struggling to afford basic necessities whilst political groups quarrel over Sudan’s future.
Something as long-term as climate change is not exactly on their mind as people struggle to buy food, cannot access healthcare because they cannot afford transport fees, and need to pull their children out of education.
A quick ask-around on the streets confirmed this. A former police officer who follows national and international news told a Radio Dabanga reporter that “nobody occupies themselves with the climate because they are too busy with the political crisis and with surviving". “It is clear that the current government does not focus on climate change at all,” he added.
'Nobody occupies themselves with the climate because they are too busy with surviving'
“Nobody in Sudan focusses on climate change, except for farmers. There was a documentary on TV about some farmers in Northern State who worry about the many rains, which usually do not occur there,” another person told one the reporter on the street.
“There is no information and little education about the dangers of climate change in terms of the impact of climate change on people’s lives and livelihoods. And no one is talking about it,” political and economic analyst Hafiz Ismail told Radio Dabanga.
Nevertheless, climate change might pose one of Sudan’s biggest future risks, and it is already happening. As COP27 is coming to an end, Radio Dabanga hopes to shine a light on Sudan’s hidden battle with climate change.
Dabanga recently published an item on the Nile river, and on which Sudanese ecosystems and livelihoods are heavily dependent, being in ‘mortal danger’ according to researchers. Its water flow could fall by 70 per cent, a disaster for food and water security, electricity provision, and biodiversity.
Sudan and the other countries along the Nile are near the bottom of Notre Dame University's GAIN rankings, which measure resilience to climate change, AFP explains. With climate change worsening, Sudan will face longer dry periods and more destructive floods caused by short heavy rains.
This is not just a problem for the future, the country is already struggling. This summer, Khartoum recorded temperatures of almost 50C degrees on and off. Though the city is known to be the hottest capital in the world, it rarely experienced such heat. People interviewed by Radio Dabanga have also cited desertification and other serious drought problems.
Water crises have already occurred frequently and a North Darfur governor warned that droughts, caused by climate change, will fuel conflict over resources in the state. The federal Ministry of Water and Irrigation, meanwhile, warned that Khartoum might become uninhabitable due to the unsustainable use of water resources and droughts.
It has witnessed some of its worst and most deadly floods in the past years, which also destroyed many farmlands. These floods, droughts, and conflict over resources only exacerbate Sudan’s food insecurity.
A third of Sudan's population now faces 'acute hunger'. Working Sudanese are unable to make ends meet, and reports of deaths from starvation have been emerging in Sudan in recent months, highlighting a growing food emergency that is spreading from rural to urban areas.
On top of changes in its climate, Sudan is also witnessing environmental pollution, illegal logging, irrigation problems which all put more stress on its ecosystems and make the country less resilient.
Nevertheless, the causes of these problems are not spoken about much in Sudanese media and on the streets. What are the experiences of Sudanese people with climate change? What is currently being done? Who are responsible for exacerbating the problems?
The occurrence of rains in northen Sudan is one example of climate change impacts. Mohamed Zeinelabdin from the area of Merowe in Northern State told Radio Dabanga about the changes his family has witnessed in the past few years.
Mohamed is the son of a family that has been making a living on palm plantations for more than hundreds of years, like most of the farmers in the area.
Northern State has a desert climate with cold winters, hot summers, and little to no rain. Palm trees, planted along the Nile, thrive in this climate and the northern part of Sudan is famous for its many types of high-quality dates.
'Normally we produce about 3,000 kilogrammes of dates, this year we only filled six 100kg sacks'
In the past years, however, the area has been hit by rainfall. This year in particular was difficult for the farmers, Zeinelabdin says. Due to the rains, the harvest was far below average. “Normally we produce about 3,000 kilogrammes of dates, this year we only filled six 100kg sacks,” he said.
“Agricultural investors who hire large numbers of palm trees from the owners on a long-term basis, are affected as well,” damaging the local economy.
Planning for change
Some people are now focussing more on other varieties of palm trees that are better suited to high humidity environments whilst others in the area are thinking about planting citrus and mango trees instead, to compensate for the loss of the palm trees.
Zeinalabdin does not know of any plans by the Northern State authorities to support the farmers in dealing with these weather changes.
“I don’t think so. Farmers in Sudan are impoverished in general. All over the country, they are suffering from government policies,” he says. “There used to be huge grain plantations here in the area, but there’s not much left of them anymore because the Sudanese Agricultural Bank now only provides commercial loans instead of other forms of support, as in the past.”
Farmers have been lamenting the lack of government support, delayed funding, problems with irrigation systems, and rising irrigation tariffs. These problems come on top of the droughts, floods, increased pests, and changing rains caused by climate change.
In his address at the COP27 UN climate summit, Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) Lt Gen Abdelfattah El Burhan acknowledged that rain-dependent agricultural practices have greatly diminished and noted that “two-thirds of the population depends on it in order to obtain food”, according to SUNA.
El Burhan also confirmed Sudan's commitment to implementing the Climate Change Agreement, the Paris Summit Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol.
Hafiz Ismail, however, explained that the government response is inadequate: “We have an Environment Ministry. The trouble is that they attend UN climate conferences, but the main motivation for them is the podiums, the money they get, and the journey”.
“They are not keen on raising awareness or reflecting on what they have heard and what policies the international community put in place to limit the impact of climate change on people and people’s livelihoods. Nothing…,” Ismail said.
'We still have a chance to do something about this. The impact is already happening but to mitigate it, we need action and policies'
“We need more focus and more awareness. We still have a chance to do something about this. The impact is already happening but to mitigate it, we need action and policies.”
“Even in Chad, they stopped using certain old vehicles because they mix fuel and oil together. Now all Chadian old tuk-tuks and cars are smuggled into Sudan, and no one cares about it. They are used without a license but if you bribe the police, you can get away with it."
Somebody in the government who does focus on climate change is Maryam Bashir, National Gender and Climate Change Focal Point under UNFCCC who also works for the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Physical Development of Sudan.
Radio Dabanga spoke with her as she just returned from COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Bashir explained that "environmental issues in general require a serious response, as this is a global problem" but that funding is often a problem for countries like Sudan.
"Sudan is lowest among the developing countries. Despite this, however, we are finding the path toward rectifying this problem," she said. "However, there are challenges facing us such as financing our efforts."
Bashir, for example, said that there was an agreement to give the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) get $100 million each year to help combat climate crisis, but that this goal was not implemented and that there is no clear decision about funding. This was also lamented at COP26 last year, where poorer countries demanded action.
She explained that the government has a national adaptation plan and that Sudan has already started to implement some of its plans, "things such as solar panels and water measures to solve the climate crisis", but did not give more specific details.
At COP27, she "followed the meetings about the social problems, chiefly in the name of our Gender Action Plan" as the National Gender and Climate Change Focal Point. "We started negotiations, but there was intense debate about the allocation of funds for this matter," she stated.
Gender and climate change
Bashir confirmed that climate change is affecting women more severely, as it does displaced and disabled people and children. "Women face the biggest problems, especially those in poverty, in matters of migration and displacement." They also face climate impacts immediately as women often carry the responsibility to collect water and firewood. They are the ones that have to queue for many hours to collect water if there is a drought.
"Women play an important role due to their experience in protecting the environment and sustainability, which they have always been the vanguard for.," Bashir explained further. Nevertheless, too few women are participating in the COP27 climate negotiations, the BBC warned.
The Sudanese ministry employee said that they set up a Gender Action Plan group "to address the problems that impact the most vulnerable in society and to address our five biggest priorities: capacity building, knowledge sharing, financing, monitoring, and evaluation".
"We need assistance from developed countries to fund our implementation programme," however, Bashir stressed.
On top of climate change-driven changes, which are impacting the entire world, Sudan also witnesses localised environmental pollution and degradation problems.
“Gold mining is a big problem. It causes pollution and the impact of gold mining is immediate. It impacts wildlife, livestock, and people’s livelihoods. Land for conservation is also being impacted, in particular in South Kordofan, Northern State, and in Darfur. It is total destruction,” Hafiz Ismail stated.
'The impact of gold mining is immediate. It impacts wildlife, livestock, and people’s livelihoods'
“They take the money, they take the gold and leave nothing. They leave only peanuts for the local community and they are not actually mitigating the impact on the local community and on the local land.”
Kordofan has indeed witnessed a series of anti-mining protests, especially in 2019, but protests have also taken place in River Nile state and Northern State against the use of toxic chemicals in mining practices.
Cyanide and mercury are frequently used in gold mining practices but are very harmful to people working in mines and the ecosystems surrounding the mines.
A recent report on mercury poisoning in Sudan points out that “years of indiscriminate use of dangerous chemicals such as mercury, cyanide, and thiourea without protective measures for miners or local populations has exposed millions of citizens across Sudan to lethal risks”.
The report highlights the total negligence of authorities and companies and states that they also failed to educate civilians on necessary precautions to protect themselves.
“The government of Sudan has failed to tightly control the operations of importing, transporting, storing, using, and disposing of mercury due to its failure to exercise control and enforce minimum standards to safeguard the health of its citizens and the environment, with tragic consequences for both,” the report stated.
Gold mining and trade, however, are largely in the hands of the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Sudan’s largest paramilitary group whose commander-in-chief is also vice-chairman of Sudan’s main governing body, the Sovereignty Council.
The RSF’s gold trade is also supported by Russia and the Russian Wagner mercenaries. Hence, it is unlikely that authorities will fulfill the protesters’ demands for environmental protection.
Oil is one of Sudan’s other big industries. Not only are fossil fuels the biggest contributors to climate change and do many climate scientists call for a fossil fuel phase-out, but oil infrastructure can also cause severe environmental damage.
Recently, Radio Dabanga reported on an investigation that showed that Sudan’s military intentionally neglected securing oil fields in order to exacerbate the fuel shortages, providing justification for the October 25, 2021, coup.
During the transitional period, at least 760 attacks on oil fields took place. These not only exacerbated fuel shortages, causing political tensions to rise so that the military could justify its power-grab, but pipeline sabotage also causes environmental problems.
Yet, even after the coup, the hidden war in the oil fields rages on. The attacks that the military allegedly turned a blind eye to are escalating beyond their control.
Sudan is also unlikely to phase out fossil fuels as its economy is already struggling severely despite possessing such a valued natural resource as oil.
Tree logging and charcoal
Another problem that leads to significant environmental degradation is illegal deforestation and charcoal production. This severely impacts people’s livelihoods and one of Sudan’s most important industries: gum Arabic production.
“The gum Arabic belt is moving south. In a few years, we will not have gum Arabic production in Sudan. It is all going to South Sudan because of climate change. Tree logging is one of the reasons for this. People are not actually aware of the dangers of deforestation,” Ismail explained.
“This started in the 70s with the establishment of big farms for which many trees were cut, especially in the south, but without any solution, any mitigation of the impacts on the local climate. And this impacted many areas in North Darfur and North Kordofan. They became uninhabitable and people lost their livelihoods. There is no water and no grazing land for the animals due to climate change, and there is no awareness of that,” he recalled.
Kunda Markazu from the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan also linked the felling of trees to increased desertification. The felling of trees, overgrazing of land, and poor agricultural practice also led to erosion and falling groundwater levels, the reporter explained, and wildfires are becoming more common.
“The awareness of the importance of planting trees and the impact trees have on the environment and what tree logging means. There is no awareness, no civic education… it is not part of the government’s urgent agenda,” Ismail also stressed.
'There is no awareness, no civic education… it is not part of the government’s urgent agenda'
In April last year, people in Ed El Fursan in South Darfur staged a sit-in to protest the illegal felling of trees. According to members of the People’s Committee for Forest Protection in Ed El Fursan, the sit-in was the first of its kind in Africa and the Arab world calling for the protection of forests.
Ibrahim Zakaria, agricultural engineer, member of the People’s Committee for Forest Protection, and head of the Ed El Fursan Youth Forum for Development and Peaceful Coexistence, told the political organisation Sudanese Demanding Bodies Association that inaction from authorities is a big problem.
Having worked in the forestry sector for a decade, he observed how easy it is for people to violate the Sudanese Forest Law as authorities allow anyone to cut trees, regardless of the species. Kunda Markazu in South Kordofan also told Radio Dabanga that logging is officially prohibited, except with written permission and under the supervision of the forestry officer, but that the Forestry Department does not abide by the law.
It certifies the cutting of forests under the pretext of cleaning the land for agriculture and grants these certifications to charcoal traders annually. State government and local authorities have no practical plans to protect the environment, especially forest wealth, they reported.
Hafiz Ismail affirmed that there are laws in place, “but they are not enforced. Tree logging and making charcoal is prohibited, but it is easy to get permission to log trees and make charcoal. Full lorries arrive from Kordofan with charcoal, and no one cares. It is starting to become very lucrative and is even exported to many other Arab countries,” he explains.
Amidst these problems, the demand for logged wood is increasing and new companies and investors have emerged who work in the charcoal trade and export. The economic crisis and military practices responsible for rising fuel prices are also making many more Sudanese dependent on wood and charcoal.
Even though many people in Sudan are not aware of the threat climate change poses, or have little space to do something about it, there are some who have made it their goal to combat climate change.
Nisreen El Saim is one of them. This Sudanese climate activist and junior negotiator at intergovernmental climate change platforms, interviewed by Radio Dabanga last year, has been at COP27 to fight for climate justice.
“We have major targets that we need to achieve by the end of this COP. They are mainly for the African continent, especially since we are contributing to this problem the least, but the most impacted by it," she told a climate organisation on social media.
'We [the African continent] are contributing to this problem the least, but the most impacted by it'
This was also echoed by Cameroonian climate activist Ewi Stephanie who told Dutch news outlet NOS that she is happy the climate summit is now in Africa. "I think African people should bang on the table and demand that they are listened to."
"I think our number one priority would be adaptation: having enough finance for it, building resilient communities, and having conversations on loss and damage and how to compensate countries for their losses," El Saim explained. "Unfortunately, we have reached a point where adaptation is not enough. We have to cut a lot of the emissions we already have."
She also defended the rights of young people in a post: "Young people are agents of change, they give a different perspective, but when it comes to green decision taking they are pushed away".
Many thanks to all those who contributed to this article. Some names of reporters have been kept anonymous.