26 Aug 2016 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Are South Sudan’s wetlands in danger of drying up?

The Sudd wetlands have been estimated to provide services worth nearly $1 billion a year.

Nairobi, 26 August 2016: The Sudd wetlands in South Sudan can cover an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom, as much as 90,000 km2 in the wet season. Their importance was recognized in 2006 when the Sudd was officially designated a Ramsar site – a wetland area of international importance – by the United Nations.

However, the Sudd ecosystem and its unique cultures are threatened by a variety of development pressures including a plan to almost completely drain the wetland to divert water for agriculture downstream. Such pressures illustrate how unrestrained economic and political forces can threaten the degradation of a valuable and irreplaceable ecosystem and major disruptions to cultures that have thrived for centuries.

So says an October 2015 report sponsored by UN Environment (UNEP), Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York), and the World Conservation Society and titled The Economic, Cultural and Ecosystem Values of the Sudd Wetland in South Sudan: An Evolutionary Approach to Environment and Development.

“This unique natural feature has provided for the cattle cultures of South Sudan for millennia. We should err on the side of caution when considering degrading its known services for an unknown future without them,” says the report.

As the human impact on the natural world accelerates, the conflict between economic decisions and environmental integrity becomes more and more obvious. The development pressures on the Sudd are driven by sweeping changes in the world economy. In recent decades market capitalism has rapidly replaced all other systems of economic organization.

A broader and more dynamic concept of “value” than the one usually employed in static cost-benefit analysis can enrich our understanding of this ecosystem, it says.

The study considers the value of the Sudd in economic, cultural, and ecological terms. Some components of value can be expressed in monetary units - the potential of the Sudd for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and eco-tourism, for example.

Some components may be quantified but not easily expressed in monetary terms - for example, the number of people whose livelihoods depend on the wetlands, or the wetlands’ contribution to socioeconomic resilience given the current conflict and climate change.

At the ecosystem level, some critical features of the wetland can be described but not precisely quantified - for example, how it functions as a stabilizer of the microclimate, or how it dampens the effects of the seasonality of the flow of the White Nile.

The Sudd supports one of the largest collections of wildlife in the world. It is important to recognize that the Sudd is part of a much larger ecosystem, the Jonglei plains. This is Africa’s largest intact area of Savannah, forming an area three times the size of the Serengeti National Park. An aerial survey of the Sudd by the WCS in 2007 confirmed the existence of more than 1.2 million white-eared Kob antelope and an abundance of Tiang antelope and Mongalla gazelle. An estimated 8,000 elephants were also present in the Sudd wetland then. With proper security and institutions in place to protect and monitor the region's wildlife areas, safaris, bird watching, ecotourism, and research activities could provide a large and steady income indefinitely.

According to the report, the Sudd is potentially the greatest economic asset in South Sudan. If properly managed it could provide income, jobs, and irreplaceable ecosystem services indefinitely. The estimated value of ecosystem services from the Sudd amounts to just under USD 991 million per year.

This figure represents only a fraction of the total value of the Sudd’s non-economic values, and does not include its potential as a symbol of national identity, its role in mitigating climate change, regulating the flow of the White Nile, and supporting South Sudan's unique wildlife and cultures.

Major threats to the Sudd include drainage projects, unsustainable logging, and poaching.

Transparent valuations can help build trust
“Resolving conflict within and between nations or between communities over natural resources has never been easy. It requires political transparency and determination, economic fairness and cultural/social sensitivity – that’s a difficult package,” says UNEP expert Pushpam Kumar.

“Valuing natural capital alongside an economic estimate of the malign and benign impact of policies and projects can help build trust among conflicting parties.

“Where the process entails issues like water flow, the use of forests, land and biodiversity, an agreement has a better chance of success in the long run if credible estimates are available,” he adds.

One point that comes out of the study is the importance of stable institutions in supporting conservation efforts: If open discussion of ecosystem values can get politicians, planners (and potentially conflicting parties) to talk the same language, and help the formation of consensus on how best to manage precious natural capital for sustainable development, then dialogue and understanding – even peace – can be enhanced.

For more information, please contact: Pushpam Kumar: Pushpam.Kumar [at] unep.org

Want to learn about the ecosystems approach? An online learning opportunity is coming up in September.