Facing Water Challenges in Sudan: A WWDR3 Case Study

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Receiving most of its lifeline water supply from the Nile River, the country is suffering from waterrelated natural hazards, disease and conflict, which put a heavy toll on sustainable socio-economic development and have led to deepening poverty.


Focus Areas

IWRM, water supply and sanitation

Geographic Scope




Background and Significance

Source:UN World Water Development Report 3 (2009)

Sudan has an agrarian economy: farming and animal husbandry are the mainstay of 80% of the population. Agriculture accounts for 34% of GDP. Livestock raising contributed about half the agricultural GDP in 1998–2001 (Central Bureau of Statistics, 2003). Industry generated 18% of GDP in 2001. Of an estimated 0.84 million km2 of potentially arable land, some 0.17 million km2, or 20%, was in use as of 2002. The irrigated area totals around 0.02 million km2, or a modest 12% of the cultivated land area, but consumes about 20 billion m3 of water – approximately equal to Sudan’s share of the Nile River flow (Box 1.2). Agricultural water consumption is expected to increase significantly, and likely to double by 2025. Although irrigation efficiency is high, a considerable amount of water is lost to evaporation and because of poor maintenance of irrigation systems. Water rates for irrigation are based on the extent of cultivated area rather than the actual quantity used. This approach, coupled with a lack of clarity about the role of farmers in the irrigation system, exacerbates the already high water consumption. Adoption of rainwater harvesting techniques could contribute significantly to improvement in agriculture and livestock production.

The incidence of rural poverty is quite high, an issue closely linked to national agricultural strategy. In the 1970s Sudan introduced large-scale mechanized farming and promoted expansion of the irrigated area to increase output, especially of cash crops. The new farming systems and land allocation policies led to displacement of subsistence farmers and nomads, and dismantled traditional systems of communal ownership and management (IFAD, 2008).

Sudan is rapidly urbanizing: the share of urban dwellers in the population increased from 27% in 1990 to 42% in 2006 (WHO/UNICEF, 2008). Household water consumption is estimated at 1.1 billion m3. Safe water and improved sanitation coverage is biased towards urban settlements. In 2006, the percentage of population with access to safe water supply was 78% in urban areas and 64% in rural ones. The disparity is even greater for access to improved sanitation, which is available to 50% of urban dwellers but only 24% in rural areas (WHO/UNICEF, 2008). Consequently, water-related communicable diseases, particularly malaria and diarrhoeal illnesses, are among the leading causes of morbidity, especially in the north, and they are exacerbated by widespread malnutrition. Malaria is epidemic: some 75% of the population nationwide is at risk (WHO, 2008a). In 2007 alone, over 2.7 million cases were reported and nearly 6% of all hospital deaths were linked to malaria (WHO, 2008b).

Pollution from households, agriculture and industry seriously threatens the quality of freshwater resources. In many places, such as southern and western Sudan, where the groundwater table is only a few metres below the surface, sanitation practices (mainly on-site disposal systems such as septic tanks and pit latrines) and improper urban waste disposal have caused very high chemical and bacteriological contamination. Almost all disposal wells and pit latrines tap the water table, and they are often within 10 to 20 metres of wells used for drinking water.

Thanks to the Nile River and its tributaries, Sudan has an estimated hydropower potential of 9 GW, with development of 5 GW being economically feasible. Yet, the hydroelectric production capacity of the four existing multipurpose dams is only 0.335 GW. Sudan’s total electricity production capacity (thermal and hydroelectric combined) of 1.2 GW (2004) does not meet demand, and in fact is greater than the country’s limited distribution capacity. A major factor limiting the development of irrigation in Sudan is the poor storage capacity of existing dams. Furthermore, siltation has reduced the design capacity of the dams by one-third, from 9.1 billion m3. Enhancing reservoir capacity is critical to assure food security, since about 85% of the annual water potential of the Nile River flows from July to September and for the rest of the year the flow is very low, especially in the Blue Nile, in whose vicinity 70% of the irrigated area is located.

The Nile and its tributaries have always been used for transport. At present, around 1,700 km of the waterways are navigated, but this could be substantially improved. Until 1977 the River Transport Corporation of Sudan had one of the largest fleets in Africa, but continuous deterioration since then has reduced the fleet to only about 10% of its former size (2005). Waterway navigation is not considered a priority; the service is mainly between the north and the south, and has never been significantly extended to other parts of the country. Moreover, a lack of coordination among relevant authorities has meant no consideration is given for navigation when major structures such as dams and bridges are built.

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions

Cycle of poverty, droughts, floods and conflict: Sudan, like other countries of the Sahel, has long suffered from lengthy, devastating droughts. The most severe droughts of recent decades occurred in 1980–1984, 1989, 1990, 1997 and 2000, causing widespread population displacement and famine. In addition, floods in Sudan have caused extensive damage, especially around the Nile and its main tributary, the Blue Nile. Severe floods on the latter river in 1988 and 1998 caused property losses estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Flooding of the Nile proper in 2007 affected over 500,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes (WHO, 2008a). Seasonal rivers can also cause serious flood damage. In 2003, for example, heavy flooding along the Gash River affected 79% of the city of Kassala, leaving 80% of the population homeless, and inflicted heavy losses on agriculture in the region (NASA, 2008). It is estimated that 85% of Sudan’s rural population lives on less than US$1 per day. Overall, some 20 million people were living in extreme poverty in 2002 (IFAD, 2008). The incidence of poverty varies considerably because economic growth is geographically uneven and conflict has devastated parts of the country. Severe regional inequalities exist in access to even the most basic services, such as education, sanitation, safe drinking water and job opportunities. For example, health services in southern Sudan reach only about 25% of the population. People living in areas that have been or continue to be affected by drought and conflict – particularly the south and Darfur – are the most vulnerable to poverty (IFAD, 2008). As of late 2007, 4.2 million people were affected by conflict, including 2.4 million internally displaced as a result of the conflict in Darfur (WHO, 2008a).


There is little public awareness or political sensitivity about ecosystem protection in Sudan. Since the 1970s, expansion of large-scale rain-fed agriculture, urbanization and other types of development have caused the destruction of over 5,000 km2 of forest, and the extent of reforestation amounts to just 300 km2. Many wildlife species have been lost for similar reasons, as well as because of the conflict in the south, and numerous other species are endangered or vulnerable. Pasture lands have been destroyed or degraded by overgrazing, droughts and fires.

In spite of substantial land and water resources, Sudan is seriously handicapped by floods, droughts and the burden of disease. Agriculture, which provides the livelihoods of 80% of the population, currently claims about 55% of available freshwater resources. Given that the water use in this sector may as much as double by 2025, water saving through better irrigation methods will become a critical factor for meeting the needs of other sectors in a sustainable fashion. A decreasing rainfall trend associated with climatic variability and likely climate change might further limit water availability and lead to serious scarcity. Overall, the lack of accurate assessment of water resources and of a national water policy are the major obstacles hindering effective management of water resources. A fragmented water sector, lack of coordination among bodies responsible for water management, gaps in legislation and poor enforcement are other issues further aggravating the situation. These challenges, combined with social unrest, have led to deepening poverty, which affects a majority of the rural population. However, there is considerable potential for improvement through adoption and implementation of better policies on water and land resources.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Ahmed, A. A. 2005. Sudan National Water Development Report. Contribution to African Water Development Report. Addis Ababa, UNECA.

Aquastat. 2005. Sudan. Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/countries/sudan/index.stm (Accessed December 2008.)

IFAD. 2008. Rural poverty in Sudan. Rural Poverty Portal, http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/web/guest/country/home/tags/sudan. (Accessed December 2008.)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 2008. Earth Observatory. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=12099 (Accessed January 2009.) Nicol, A., with Shahin, M. 2003. The Nile: Moving Beyond Cooperation. Paris,

UNESCO International Hydrological Programme and World Water Assessment Programme. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001333/133301e.pdf (Technical Documents in Hydrology, PC-CP Series, No. 16, accessed December 2008.)

Salih M. A. et al. 1982. Water Resources in Sudan. Report submitted to the National Council for Research, Khartoum.

Sudan National Water Policy (SNWP). 2002. Khartoum, Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2008a. Emergency Preparedness and Humanitarian Action: Sudan, From Emergency to Sustainability. http://www.emro.who.int/sudan/pdf/Sudan_Generic_donor_report.pdf (Accessed December 2008.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2008b. World Malaria Report. http://malaria.who.int/wmr2008/malaria2008.pdf (Accessed December 2008.)

WHO/UNICEF. 2008. Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. http://www.wssinfo.org/pdf/JMP_08.pdf.zip (Accessed December 2008.)

External Resources

The United Nations World Water Development Report 3


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