07 Aug 2017 Story Disasters & conflicts

Reversing the cycle of conflict over resources in North Darfur

Sudan – That conflict occurs over scarce natural resources, such as water, is an accepted fact. But in a region in North Darfur, after more than a decade of strife that has eroded trust and traditional institutions responsible for negotiating the rights of access to water and grazing land, the reverse is unfolding: it’s these very scarce resources that is bringing conflict-weary people together and slowly mending trust.

Water is like a capricious spirit in the Wadi El Ku region in North Darfur, Sudan, which gets its name from the seasonal river that runs through it on which 700,000 people directly rely.

Its catchment is about 27,000 square kilometres (bigger than Slovenia or Rwanda). Its waters are the lifeblood of the state, providing water for drinking, agriculture, groundwater resources, forests and rangelands essential to livestock production and ecosystem integrity.

A section of Wadi El Ku, a seasonal river in North Darfur, Sudan. Credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

The entire region depends on rainfall, which has always been relatively low (between 150 – 300mm per year). Although there is a rainy season, usually between July and September, no one knows for certain exactly when the rain will fall, where it will fall, and how much there will be.

Climate change has increased the unpredictability of the rain, the incidence of extreme events such as drought and flood, and the frequency of low-rainfall years. Years of conflict have engendered widespread mistrust and weakened the traditional institutions through which water usage rights among farmers and pastoralists were negotiated.

Yet, in Shagra Village, Aisha Musa Ismail, a 45-year-old farmer points to a weir in the distance and speaks enthusiastically about recent developments to the area:

“Our village contributed labour and money to the construction of the Korga weir, which was built in 2016,” she says, “and because of it, there was green as far as the eye could see at harvest time, even in desert soils, and the produce in the market was plentiful.”

The water-spreading Korga weir is the second of three that were built as part of the Wadi El Ku Catchment Management Project, led by UN Environment and non-governmental organization Practical Action and funded by the European Union. It slows down the flow of water during the region’s unpredictable, torrential rains, and spreads it out over a wide area. So far, about 10,500 households have benefited directly from the weirs established by the project.

Aisha, one of the first-ever Natural Resource Management extension workers in North Darfur, teaches fellow farmers about relevant techniques. She credits the Wadi El Ku project with improving her and neighbouring villages’ prospects and fates and the training she has received that benefits her whole community.

“Now that people are no longer apprehensive about water, there is harmony between the villages,” she observes.

Integrated water resource management as a path to peace and security

It took three and a half years to get the wide array of project partners to work comfortably together, as levels of mistrust and tension were high at the beginning of the project, just as motivations and understandings of the project’s objectives, varied wildly.

“It was immediately clear that in order for this project to make any headway, it would be essential to engage all actors — and that a shared objective around what the project was all about needed to be defined, slowly, allowing space for all views and priorities to be expressed. It was also clear that we needed to improve cooperation and build trust,” recalls the project manager, UN Environment, Magda Nassef.

From the very beginning, representatives from the villages, NGOs, and relevant government officials at all levels were brought together. They had to agree that there was a problem, and the nature and shape of both the problem and the intervention.

“We made sure that people in the 34 villages were fully on board, and not only on board but in the driver’s seat in terms of defining their landscape, their problems, and their priority actions,” Nassef said.

To do this, the villagers — farmers and pastoralists — defined community action plans for each of the project’s 34 village councils, and also put together a three-dimensional, to-scale map of part of the area together, which included how everyone in the area saw their land, river and water, and how each group perceived the issues.

Communities discussing and agreeing the main features of the 3-dimensional model. Credit: UN Environment, North Darfur

Among many other initiatives to broker common understanding, UN Environment, Practical Action, and the state of North Darfur established the Catchment Management Forum, which brings together the main players in water management, including government from across relevant line ministries and communities.

It is tasked to coordinate, advocate and advise on improved water management for the wadi and for the state. This forum directly responds to a major challenge highlighted by nearly everyone in the state – the complete lack of cooperation and coordination around shared natural resources. 

“The recognition at state level of the importance of integrated water resource management led to a ministerial decree banning unplanned water constructions in the wadi, which recognized the negative impacts these had on water flow, environmental health and water availability downstream,” Nassef said. “Based on this decree, the Catchment Management Forum has supported government to prepare a protocol that provides guidance on water harvesting interventions in the state.”

The building of the three water-spreading weirs, to which the villages contributed both money and labour, was one of several interventions that were carried out under the project, and its effects kicked in almost immediately.

In 2015, the project established the first water-spreading earth weir, at Seil Gideim near Zamzam village.

Its purpose was to demonstrate how well-planned, -designed and -managed water infrastructure, which takes into consideration upstream and downstream communities, can address water shortages and resource-based conflict at the same time.

Ibrahim Eissa, a 50-year-old farmer in Zamzam village, who grew up here with his family planting crops for both food and livelihood, observes, “piecemeal and poorly-planned water development is a serious problem in North Darfur.”

 “We not only need to harvest rainwater more intelligently, but we also need to work together as water affects all of us,” he says.

The recently-concluded project held its last conference over 14 to 15 March. The feedback from participants was warm and positive.

“When the project first began in 2013, I was the state Minister of Agriculture, and here was this project, which promised great things,” said the Head of the Legislative Council for North Darfur State, Eisa Mohammed Abdalla Ahmed during the closing session of the March conference.

“I had my doubts it could reach its lofty objectives. But we gave it a chance and watched as things happened,” he continued, adding, “now, three and a half years later, I feel like this infant son from all that time ago, whose future I was so unsure of, has become a strong young man, and I am proud of what I see before me. We all helped make this project what it is today.” 

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