An Inside Look into Sudan’s First Ever State of the Environment and Outlook Report

Getty Images / Frank Heinz

The Government of Sudan and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have jointly launched the first ever State of the Environment and Outlook Report for the Republic of Sudan under the theme of Environment for Peace and Sustainable Development.

According to the report, Sudan has had a number of environmental problems that have afflicted the country over many years. And while some of them appear manageable, others are systemic. It notes that the country is also facing new environmental challenges about which there is little local knowledge and data.

Persistent environmental issues

Desertification, old and banned pesticides, and solid waste problems have become chronic issues and less responsive to current policy and institutional measures.

About half of Sudan’s population lives in desert areas, where overgrazing proves to be a significant challenge. The country’s livestock population exceeds the national carrying capacity.

Earlier studies show that overgrazing was responsible or the damage of 74 percent of the country’s degraded land. In addition, deforestation and poor methods of cultivation are also to blame for the expansion and persistence of desertification. 

Given the country’s long history in commercial farming, including cotton farming which dates back to the 1940s, old and banned pesticides have been a big challenge to Sudan. During that period, the pesticides had the positive effect of increasing yields, but they later became a problem due to their long life and the tendency of some to bio-accumulate in the food chain.

Sudan is also facing a problem with solid waste, especially municipal solid waste. In 2016 Khartoum generated about 6,600 tonnes of waste per day, though the city only has a capacity to collect 4,200 tonnes per day.  The city also struggles with toxic waste that is dumped in landfills and ends up leaching into ground water. 

Emerging environmental issues

The country has also encountered new environmental challenges such as artisanal gold mining and e-waste have which have affected both human lives and the country’s general economy.

Even though artisanal gold mining has become a growing means of generating foreign currency, it has had effects on both human lives and the environment due to the increased use of mercury.

According to Sudan’s Ministry of Mineral Resources 2015, artisanal gold mining became widespread after the secession of South Sudan in 2011. This was partly in response to the decline in foreign currency revenues due to reduced oil exports. And in 2012, the country experienced the biggest jump in artisan gold mining whereby gold mining licenses doubled from 318 to 700 and the and the number of processing mills increased six-fold from 714 to 4,464. Two years later, 2014, artisanal gold miners produced up to 60 tonness of gold, almost six times more than large scale farmers.

Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world.  It is estimated that Sudan produces 3–6 kg per person per year of electronic waste and they are not properly displaced. In most cases, they are piled at home and in offices.

Also, due to the growing demand for low-cost transport and absence of reliable and stable electricity supplies, there has been an increase in the use of three wheeled motorcycles popularly known as rickshaws and diesel/ petrol electric generators, both of which cause significant noise and air pollution.

Policy analysis

Sudan’s environmental policies are based on the country’s strategic and development plans, the constitution, and global targets such as the SDGs.

The policies are meant to deter environmental crimes and act as incentives for good environmental practices. Sudan’s economic and anti-poverty policies also have a bearing on the environment.

However, weak policy enforcement is a challenge for Sudan and has caused a number of policies to fail. For example, the target laid down in the Forest Act 1989 that 5 per cent of irrigated agricultural schemes and 10 per cent of rain-fed schemes should be planted with tree belts has been undermined by poor budgetary support and weak enforcement of laws.

The report highlights that, governance will be critical in shaping the future of Sudan. For many years the environmental sector has suffered from a lack of representation at the central government level – its administration has been shunted from one government ministry to another.

However, in April 2020 the government invested responsibility for environmental affairs in the new Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources, following amendments to the Environment Protection Act 2001.

Future outlook

In order to determine the country’s possibilities of meeting the SDGs, the report has come up with two scenarios: Business-as-Usual and Bending-the-Curve. Business-as-Usual highlights Sudan having no major policy shifts in the future, while under the Bending-the-Curve scenario the country will make major policy shifts to meet its 2030 agenda.

Business as usual

Despite efforts to create a green belt of trees, the southern boundary of the Sahara Desert continues to shift, depending on the quality of the rainy season. Desertification remains a major persistent environmental challenge for Sudan, even though the country was among the first to sign up to the United Nations

Convention to Combat Desertification. Efforts to safely dispose of stockpiles of obsolete pesticides are too slow, while contaminated soils and water continue to cause a health risk to both people and wildlife.

As for the emerging environmental issues– which include artisanal gold mining, diesel/gasoline generators and rickshaws – to plague the country as Sudan struggles to diversify its economy for the purposes of generating foreign currency. Electric power generation remains weak.

Also, there is little investment in mass public transport systems, and the country fails to meet air pollution targets. Though the import of mercury is banned under the Minamata Convention, the heavy metal continues to find its way onto the Sudanese market, causing both soil and air pollution.

Bending-the-curve

Degraded land is rehabilitated, and new mining operations are more environmentally friendly. The country not only adheres to the Minamata Convention, but also significantly improves the quality of life and health of the miners.

Following the recognition of the negative impacts of unregulated artisanal gold mining, Sudan changes its mining laws to include a total ban on the use of mercury. Support is provided to the miners to organise themselves into groups so that they can jointly use ore-processing facilities and organise their marketing.  

Because of the country’s long hours of sunshine and improving investment climate, there is a large-scale private and public investment in both grid and off-grid renewable energy, especially solar and wind power. By 2030, most Sudanese have access to clean electricity, which leads to huge savings for the country as it does not need to import electricity. Sudan also significantly reduces its carbon footprint. Cases of upper respiratory infections caused by indoor pollution are dramatically cut, and the country meets its health targets.

Large-scale investments in public transport systems result in the disappearance of the rickshaw, resulting in significant improvements in the quality of air in towns and cities. Investments in solar, wind and hydropower ensure that the country has surplus electricity and therefore no need to use fuel-powered generators. As a result, people’s quality of life, including their health, improves significantly.

The scourge of desertification continues to affect Sudan, but people have learnt to adapt to the desert conditions. Afforestation programmes are implemented and the vegetation cover is increased. Stockpiles of obsolete pesticides are destroyed, while contaminated soils and water are remediated.

Read also: Kenya and Ethiopia to kick start their economies by repairing nature- UN

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