As much as I was pleasantly surprised by the international solidarity and media coverage in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion, I have been unpleasantly shocked by the international apathy and lack of adequate reporting on the catastrophic floods in Sudan.
Half a million people have been affected, with more than 100,000 homes either partly or fully destroyed. A large portion of those people have probably lost everything they own, yet the disaster is reported as regular news. The same way the world stood with Lebanon in its distress, it should stand with Sudan.
The flood problem in Sudan is a recurring one and it needs a sustainable solution. The country experiences flooding almost every year, but this year it has been catastrophic due to the unprecedented amount of rain that has fallen in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile. Some say the rainfall is the highest it has been in 100 years. The calamity was partly due to natural factors, but also partly due to a lack of urban planning.
The two tributaries of the Nile, the Blue Nile coming from Ethiopia and the White Nile coming from Uganda, meet in Khartoum. More than a kilometer of the shores of the Nile in the capital have been backfilled to widen the streets and allow for the siting of concrete buildings. This has reduced the riverbed, decreasing its capacity to accommodate additional water flow. The residential structures built alongside the Nile have also blocked the natural channels that the river creates to diffuse the flow of excess water.
Sudanese farmers tend to settle on the banks of the river because the floods cover the land with silt, rendering it fertile and flat. However, the slums built in proximity to the riverbed make their inhabitants prone to the consequences of floods. There is a Sudanese saying that, “The flood never forgets its way,” meaning floodwater will always come back and cover the same areas it has covered before. Therefore, every few years, the story is repeated, with masses of people losing their homes and their belongings due to the floods.
The slums are also increasing by the day due to the growing population, which means more and more people will be endangered in the future.
Nevertheless, problems created by geography can be solved by human ingenuity if there is proper governance and planning. The Netherlands, whose name literally means “lower countries,” has been able to manage the problem of its low elevation by putting in place pumps that push back excess water, which then goes into its canals and eventually to the sea. Sudan can solve its problem if there is a policy decision to put in place a flood control and management system. In fact, the flood problem can be turned into an asset.
Talking to Dr. Issam Bashour, a professor and soil expert at the American University of Beirut, he said three steps are needed to solve this recurring problem: “You start with planting vegetation to retain more water; vegetation absorbs water and reduces soil erosion and the landslide effect. The second step is terracing hillsides to slow downhill flow. And the third step is the construction of flood control canals to divert the water overflow.” He added: “Sudan is a rich country with a rich terrain but it suffers from a lack of planning and mismanagement of the environment.” Flood control canals could increase the areas of irrigated agriculture. They could also be linked to water storage lakes to be used in times of drought.
Technical solutions are easy and straightforward; the problem lies in the political will. Under the rule of Omar Bashir that lasted almost 30 years, the country was decaying from corruption, while it was also suffering from international isolation due its listing as a country that sponsored terrorism. However, the current government, similar to the Lebanese government, is not showing quick and effective responsiveness to the disaster.
The difference between the two cases lies in the international response. The disaster of Sudan is far from over. The floods are expected to last through to October, greatly affecting the supply of clean water. These floods will not stop at destroying the homes of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese — they will result in diseases that come with the lack of clean water and food insecurity in the months to come. Therefore, the disaster will have a compound effect on the people of Sudan; yet the world is reluctant to take adequate action.
Trying to explain this behavior, I spoke to a veteran Sudanese journalist residing in Dubai, Omar Al-Omar. He told me: “People, whether it is the international community or the Sudanese diaspora, have tried to help in the past only to find their aid being embezzled by the corrupt government. This created a major turn-off. Also, the current government has declared Sudan as an afflicted country but has fallen short from properly engaging with the international community to garner relief.”
The point is that the international community should not wait for the government of Sudan to engage. It should not let the people of Sudan pay the price for their government’s reluctance. It should take action now and help the stricken country. In addition to relief, the international community should provide a sustainable solution and install a flood management system that relieves the Sudanese people of this problem once and for all.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is the co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building (RCCP), a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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