Sudan's newfound devotion to environmental protection

Sunset over the River Nile in Sudan's capital, Khartoum [Getty Images]
09 June, 2021
With the 2019 Revolution bringing about systematic societal upheaval in Sudan, another encouraging by-product has been Sudan's newfound enthusiasm for environmental protection & conservation. We analyse their progress in enacting sustainable change.

From rebuilding a society riven by decades of sectarian violence to rehabilitating an economy battered by the pandemic, Sudan’s provisional government has hardly found a shortage of challenges to tackle during its two years in power.

Since a coup d’état toppled the Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, the country’s leadership has made significant strides in the realms of conflict resolution, economic development, and human rights. At the same time, Sudanese officials are working to stem a lesser-known crisis: environmental degradation.

Just months after the interim government took power, it began to demonstrate its commitment to environmental protection. In October 2019, Sudanese officials outlawed the use of cyanide and mercury in the country’s mines; the move followed meetings with activists who warned of the risk that the toxic chemicals presented to the natural environment and public health. Sudanese leaders then hired independent observers to monitor the operations of mining companies.

The current Sudanese leadership’s newfound zeal for environmentalism stems at least in part from the realisation that environmental degradation poses an existential threat to Sudan

While post-revolutionary fervour in Sudan has dissipated over time, the environmental movement there continues apace. Last year, Sudan’s transitional government partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme to commission what the UN called “the first-ever State of the Environment and Outlook Report for the Republic of Sudan.” The report, in turn, encouraged Sudanese officials to prioritise four goals: promoting rural development, reforming land laws, regulating the mining industry, and preparing Sudan for the effects of climate change.

The current Sudanese leadership’s newfound zeal for environmentalism stems at least in part from the realisation that environmental degradation poses an existential threat to Sudan. Even under Bashir’s regime, Sudanese officials acknowledged that environmental issues were contributing to high mortality rates. The UN has identified biodiversity loss, deforestation, food security, habitat destruction, land degradation, and pollution as problems of particular concern.

In one of the most concerning findings of environmental degradation’s effects on Sudan, a range of analysts have linked climate change to the country’s recent history of sectarian strife. As desertification and water scarcity undermine agriculture— the lifeblood of many Sudanese tribes — impoverished but well-armed rural communities have needed to compete over dwindling natural resources. Some scholars describe the notorious ethnic conflict that unfolded in Darfur two decades ago as an outgrowth of disputes stemming from a major drought in the region.

The government of Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, eager to move past the accusations of ethnic cleansing and genocide that marred Bashir’s three-decade reign, has strived to mend the sectarian fragmentation accelerated by climate change. Hamdok has concluded peace treaties with several Sudanese rebel groups, laying the groundwork for the resolution of conflicts over natural resources and building a united front against environmental issues.

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On a wider level, Hamdok appears to recognise the opportunities for environmental protection offered by Sudan’s transition away from the violent authoritarianism of Bashir.

During last year’s announcement of the UN-supported “State of the Environment and Outlook Report,” Hamdok noted that the initiative’s environmental focus “is aptly chosen not only because it highlights the intricate nature of the nexus between environment, peace and sustainable development, but also because it comes at a time when the new Sudan seeks peaceful rebuilding of the nation, the establishment of a vibrant economy, and a politically stable future under the emblem of the December 2019 Revolution: Freedom, Peace, and Justice.”

A new generation of Sudanese activists shares Hamdok’s optimism. Kholood Khair, a managing partner at the Sudanese think tank Insight Strategy Partners, wrote for al-Jazeera that Sudan’s transitional government can “send a clear message of intent” to fight climate change and “presents a valuable opportunity for Sudan to invest in sustainable development and build a green economy based on good governance of the country’s abundant natural resources.”

As the country battles a constellation of ecological crises and wider challenges, Sudan’s commitment to the fight against climate change may come under strain

The international community appears receptive to Hamdok and Khair’s vision. Last year, the Green Climate Fund and the UN Development Programme agreed to give Sudan $25.6 million “to build resilient economies and livelihoods” by helping rural communities practice sustainable agriculture and adapt to climate change. Earlier this year, Japan and the International Labour Organisation financed a $1.9 million project to repair drainage systems and reservoirs in Khartoum damaged by flooding – an environmental issue exacerbated by climate change.

These partnerships align with the provisional government’s efforts to reform Sudan’s faltering economy and escape the country’s past reputation as a pariah state. In this spirit, Hamdok’s administration has expanded women’s rights and weakened controversial laws forbidding the consumption of alcohol and the renunciation of Islam. Last year, Sudan also reached an agreement with the United States that resulted in the removal of crippling economic sanctions.

The forward-looking domestic and foreign policies of Sudan’s transitional government complement the country’s dedication to environmental protection, whose urgency has only grown in the time since Hamdok took office.

As the country battles a constellation of ecological crises and wider challenges, Sudan’s commitment to the fight against climate change may come under strain. So far, however, Hamdok’s administration has proved that it considers the environmental movement a key ally in the march toward a democratic, sustainable future.

Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily BeastUSA TodayVox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution.