Darfur: Adapting to an encroaching desert

UN Environment Programme
6 min readJan 17, 2019

Jean-Michel Dumond & Gary Lewis

“Farmers always think with their eyes,” goes the saying. For communities living according to when, or whether, the rains come, it is practical solutions — not words — that count.

Practicality certainly counts in Darfur, a region of Sudan where reduced rainfall has produced a steady southward march of the Sahara desert. The reduced rainfall is itself a product of erratic and varied weather patterns caused by climate change.

Draw a horizontal line across a map of Sudan, about halfway down. Below that line is where farmers receive more than 400 millimeters of rainfall per year, the amount needed to grow crops. Above it — with the exception of the Nile valley — hardly anything grows.

That line is swiftly drifting southwards each passing year. This is making it difficult for farmers north of the line to grow the crops that can sustain a decent living — enough food to eat, and maybe a little cash to buy other necessities of life.

Credit: Alberto González Farran/UN Environment

Darfur sits on the western end of this line. Some of it above, some below, but more and more is above.

For Darfuris, their situation is precarious enough at the best of times. The situation remains fragile.

What we have learnt in Darfur — as elsewhere — is this: the key to maintaining peace is heavily influenced by how equitably a region’s resources are shared among local communities. Resources like water and land are critical for growing food while the population increases very rapidly. It was grievances surrounding the control of natural resources that were among those which gave rise to disputes that produced the conflict in the first place.

Now imagine what could happen if harsh long-term weather patterns were to combine with a resurgence of the same resource-related grievances.

But these days the tables are turning. For the better. And now these same natural resources are being used to promote peace. Water is the key. With support from the European Union and the United Nations, a combination of two things — structures and systems — are making it possible for citizens of Darfur’s Wadi El Ku basin to sustain their livelihoods. And, within the limitations of these tough semi-desert conditions, even to prosper.

A decade ago, Wadi El Ku stood right in the centre of the civil conflict. For this reason, it was selected as the project zone for a project involving the Sudanese authorities, the communities on the ground and the European Union and UN Environment.

Under the project, the building of physical structures is easier. Weirs, canals and other forms of on-farm water management are more efficiently spreading the waters of the seasonally-rainfed Wadi El Ku basin more broadly. More water, more equitably spread, has produced three main results. First, increased crop yield. In some cases, there has been a tripling of the yields for sorghum and millet — the staple food of the region — in places touched by the project. Second, an increase in income for the farmers. Seven of 10 farmers surveyed say that their income from agriculture has increased. And they credit this directly to the project. Third, in Sudan as everywhere, water flows downstream. If water is to be managed properly, communities all along its watercourse need to be involved in the decision-making. And this is what happened in Wadi El Ku. The result is a contribution to peace and stability in the region.

Building decision-making “systems” is more difficult. The 250-km-long Wadi El Ku catchment area is littered with the skeletons of earthen engineering works which were built in the past but without any engagement of the local communities. Mainly for this reason, the local population has neglected them. And over the years they fell into disuse.

The Wadi El Ku project — which started in 2013 and is now entering its second phase with the infusion of another 10 million euros from the European Union — adopted a different approach. Along the 80 km length of the project zone, centred on El Fasher, the project has sought and succeeded to engage communities from the outset and build from the bottom-up.

Over 2,000 citizens attended the launch event of the second Phase of the Wadi El Ku project on 26 November in Kafod, north of El Fasher, Darfur.
Credit: UN Environment

In this harsh environment where discipline and order are seen as critical elements for survival, such a grassroots approach initially came as a surprise to many. But it has demonstrably worked. There are now many community councils which regularly meet — drawing from across a swathe of villages — to evaluate the best way of using the more abundant water which is now available.

“These community councils let us get together to solve problems, and they let us women have a greater say in what happens”, says Azeezah Abdallah Mohammad, who has herself, under the project, travelled to Rwanda to learn more about crop improvement techniques. This represents a major step forward for communities where women do most of the work in the fields — planting, weeding and harvesting — but often find themselves excluded when it comes to making decisions.

Women have a greater say in decision-making. As part of the Wadi El Ku project, Azeezah Abdallah Mohammad travelled to Rwanda to learn more about crop improvement techniques.
Credit: UN Environment

Technical committees, the next level up, ensure that there is technical and political engagement at state level from the government authorities. Finally, we see strong buy-in from the central government in Khartoum which is encouraging this experiment in community empowerment. These systems, we believe, are the key to success in Wadi El Ku. And they are replicable.

The partnership with the local university of El Fasher in the design also contributed to ensure that the project was really adapted to the needs of the people. All this engagement has taken time to achieve momentum. Such things always do. And new problems loom on the horizon. There are not enough feeder roads to take the product to market. Transport is poor. There are worries about decreased rainfall over the long-term.

“We would like the project to help us extend the water from the rains to a larger portion of the river basin,” says Ahmed Abdallah. He nonetheless celebrates the fact that the newly-irrigated lands of the Wadi El Ku have grown three times larger, in his part of the catchment area, as a result of the work of the project. This is more than he has seen at any time during his 45 years. So, yes, challenges remain.

Ahmed Abdallah
Credit: UN Environment

But such problems are solvable. And these problems are much better ones to have than the endless competition over scarce resources, which, in the past, and in part, drove Darfuris to resort to violence to solve disputes over natural resources.

Looking more broadly, as climate change drives desertification in much of the Sahel and tropical zones on other continents, one sensible strategy for the international community to help solve the problems of displacement and migration is to build more resilience at ground level. We need to do more to help people stay where they were born, adapt-in-place, and sustain their families.

But this will require the external community to work closely with national leadership, state decision-makers and communities all as part of a chain of networks and actions that can drive towards a single practical strategic outcome.

Which is this: In a warming world, we need to adapt and share better our scarce resources in order to have a reasonable chance to preserve livelihoods until we work out how — through a combination of reduced emissions, expanding carbon sinks, and sequestering more greenhouse gases — we turn down the heat on this endangered planet of ours.

Jean-Michel Dumond is the European Union Ambassador in Sudan. Gary Lewis is the Director of UN Environment’s Policy & Programme Division. They recently travelled to Darfur.

Interested in learning more about environmental peacebuilding? A free, 8-week course on Environmental Security and Sustaining Peace begins on 11 February.

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