Environmental degradation triggering tensions and conflict in Sudan

News and Press Release
Originally published
Investments in Management and Rehabilitation of Natural Resources Central to Conflict Resolution and Peace Building in Sudan Says UN Environment Programme

Geneva/Nairobi, 22 June 2007 - Sudan is unlikely to see a lasting peace unless widespread and rapidly accelerating environmental degradation is urgently addressed.

A new assessment of the country, including the troubled region of Darfur, indicates that among the root causes of decades of social strife and conflict are the rapidly eroding environmental services in several key parts of the country.

Investment in environmental management, financed by the international community and from the country's emerging boom in oil and gas exports, will be a vital part of the peace building effort, says the report.

The most serious concerns are land degradation, desertification and the spread of deserts southwards by an average of 100km over the past four decades.

These are linked with factors including overgrazing of fragile soils by a livestock population that has exploded from close to 27 million animals to around 135 million now.

Many sensitive areas are also experiencing a "deforestation crisis" which has led to a loss of almost 12 per cent of Sudan's forest cover in just 15 years. Indeed, some areas may undergo a total loss of forest cover within the next decade.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence of long-term regional climate change in several parts of the country. This is witnessed by a very irregular but marked decline in rainfall, for which the clearest indications are found in Kordofan and Darfur states.

In Northern Darfur for example precipitation has fallen by a third in the past 80 years says the report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch.

The scale of climate change as recorded in Northern Darfur is almost unprecedented, and its impacts are closely linked to conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on traditional agricultural and pastoral livelihoods.

In addition, "forecast climate change is expected to further reduce food production due to declining rainfall and increased variability, particularly in the Sahel belt. A drop in crop yields of up to 70 per cent is forecast for the most vulnerable areas," says the Sudan Post-Conflict Assessment.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "This report encapsulates the scale and many of the driving forces behind the tragedy of the Sudan - a tragedy that has been unfolding for decades touching the lives of millions of people and thousands of communities".

"However, the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 and recent developments including the decision to deploy a joint African Union-UN peace keeping force for Darfur, offer a real chance to deliver a different future for the people of Sudan," he added.

"It is clear however that a big part of that future and central to keeping the peace will be the way in which Sudan's environment is rehabilitated and managed. Sudan's tragedy is not just the tragedy of one country in Africa - it is a window to a wider world underlining how issues such as uncontrolled depletion of natural resources like soils and forests allied to impacts like climate change can destabilize communities, even entire nations," said Mr Steiner.

While the tensions and conflicts in Darfur are currently in the headlines, the report warns that other parts of the Sudan could see resumptions of historical clashes driven in part by declines in environmental services.

This is particularly the case in some north-south border zones. In the Nuba mountains region in Southern Kordofan, for example, the indigenous Nuba tribe expressed concern over the damaging of trees and other vegetation due to the recent presence of the camel-herding Shanabla tribe. Like many pastoralist communities, the Shanabla have been forced to migrate south in search of adequate grazing land lost in the north to agricultural expansion and drought. Some Nuba warned of 'restarting the war' if this damage did not cease.

The assessment, which was requested and carried out in cooperation with the new Government of National Unity and the Government of Southern Sudan, makes raft of wide-ranging recommendations.

These include investment in environmental management including climate adaptation measures; capacity building of national and local government in environmental affairs and the integration of environmental factors in all UN relief and development projects.

"The total cost of this report's recommendations is estimated at approximately $120 million over three to five years. These are not large figures when compared to the Sudanese GDP in 2005 of $85.5 billion," says the UNEP study.

Some Key Findings

Rainfall and Agriculture

There is evidence of long term regional climate change in several parts of the country with very irregular and marked decline in rainfall.

Indeed historical data in Darfur indicates that rainfall declines of between 16 per cent and over 30 per cent have occurred turning millions of hectares of marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert.

Overall, deserts in some northern regions of Sudan may have advanced by an average of 100km over the past 40 years.

Areas on the fringes of the Sahara will be acutely vulnerable including conflict- and drought-stricken parts of Darfur, Northern Kordofan, Khartoum state and Kassala state.

Climate models for Northern Kordofan indicate that temperatures are set to rise by 0.5 degrees C to 1.5 degrees C by 2030 and 2060 with an average rainfall decline of five per cent.

The impacts on agriculture are likely to be disastrous in some areas. For example sorghum production could decline from yields of close to 500kg/hectare to 150 kg/hectare?a drop of 70 per cent.

By 2020, the level of failed harvests in Darfur could be between five to 20 per cent.

The crisis is being aggravated by degradation of water sources in deserts known as wadis or oases. "Virtually all such areas inspected by UNEP were found to be moderately to severely degraded, principally due to deforestation, overgrazing and erosion," says the report.

Despite these serious water shortages, flooding and related natural disasters also contribute to human vulnerability in Sudan.

The most devastating floods occur on the Blue Nile, as a result of deforestation and overgrazing in the river's upper catchment. Riverbank erosion due to watershed degradation and associated flooding is particularly destructive and severe along the fertile Nile riverine strip.

"UNEP anticipates that pulsed water releases from the new Merowe dam will become a major cause of downstream riverbank erosion on the main Nile," says the report.

Sustainable management of agriculture - Sudan's largest economic sector - would have important benefits.

"Disorganized and poorly managed mechanized rain-fed agriculture, which covers an estimated area of 6.5 million hectares, has been particularly destructive, leading to large-scale forest clearance, loss of wildlife and severe land degradation," the report says.

Population Displacement

There are five million internally displaced people and refugees in Sudan. Environmental degradation is one of the driving forces of displacement and the environment is being further undermined by the sheer scale of displaced people and refugees in some areas.

The environmental impacts of many of the camps is high, especially in respect to deforestation for fuel wood. The UNEP study found that in Darfur, extensive deforestation can be found as far as 10km from a camp. The situation is being aggravated by brick making in some camps.

One large tree is needed to provide the fire to make around 3,000 bricks. In addition, the clay needed for brick-making can damage trees by exposing roots and also create pits in which water collects and mosquitoes can thrive.

"It is possible that some camps in Darfur will run out of viable fuel wood supplies within walking distance resulting in major fuel shortages," says the report.

Returning displaced people to their homelands is clearly a laudable aim but the report warns that in some areas this may be impossible because environmental degradation has gone too far.

A preliminary analysis by UNEP of the environmental sustainability of some states indicates that "the situation in Darfur is particularly clear". Many regions of Northern and Western Darfur are undergoing desertification and land degradation at a significant rate. Other states facing similar issues are Southern Kordofan, eastern Kassala, northern Blue Nile, northern Upper Nile and northern Unity state.

"For most of Southern Sudan the situation is relatively positive in that the higher rainfall provides for greater agricultural productivity," says the UNEP study.


Sudan is undergoing a rapid loss of forests. Forest cover has declined by 11.6 per cent since 1990 or approximately 8.8 million hectares.

This is largely driven by slash and burn agriculture and energy demands. UNEP estimates that fuel wood requirements for 2006 were around 27 to 30 million cubic metres.

"At the regional level, two-thirds of the forests in north, central and eastern Sudan disappeared between 1972 and 2001. In Darfur, a third of the forest cover was lost between 1973 and 2006. Southern Sudan is estimated to have lost 40 per cent of its forests since independence and deforestation is ongoing," says the report.

A further study by ICRAF, the World Agroforestry Center, commissioned by UNEP for the report indicates that Sudan has lost 30 per cent of its forests since independence with the majority of forests in the north already lost.

At Timbisquo and Um Chelluta, two sites in Southern Darfur the annual deforestation rates are 1.3 and 1.2 per cent respectively. Overall the Sudan's deforestation rate of natural forests may be close to two per cent per year.

Demand for charcoal is flagged as a potential flash point and conflict between northern and southern Sudan as well as in Darfur.

"UNEP predicts that within five to ten years, the northern states of Sudan will only be able to obtain sufficient supplies of charcoal from Southern Sudan and Darfur as all other major reserves will have been exhausted," says the report.


20 per cent of Sudan's freshwater resources are produced internally from rainfall. The rest comes from sources outside the country like the Nile.

Land degradation, in part linked with deforestation, is dramatically reducing the capacity of Sudan's existing dams, due to sedimentation. The Sennar dam on the Blue Nile has lost 60 per cent of its capacity with the Khashm el Girba dam on the Atbara River down by over 50 per cent.

The report highlights concerns linked with the new Merowe dam?the largest dam project in Africa after the Aswan dam in Egypt. The UNEP assessment concludes that water discharges from the dam are likely to trigger impacts on nearby agricultural schemes and erosion of river banks.

Other concerns include loss of flow for the recharge of underground aquifers and the 'blocking of fish migrations'.