Sudan, ‘kingmaker’ in a new Nile hydropolitics: negotiating water and hydraulic infrastructure to expand large-scale irrigation
Sudan is often presented as the Nile riparian state with the highest agricultural potential, including contributing substantially to food security in the Nile region and beyond. This potential (or perception of) arises out of Sudan’s large tracts of fertile land with high potential for irrigation and rainfed agriculture. Sudan’s arable land is estimated to be 105 million hectares, of which only around 18 million hectares are currently under cultivation, most of which is rainfed. The current reported irrigated area ranges from 1.2 million to 2.2 million hectares, which is only around 1 per cent of total arable land (Conniff et al., 2012; Johnston, 2012; Arjoon et al., 2014). Full harnessing of that potential is complex and in the past has been affected by a protracted civil war and generalized political instability, economic and political isolation, incoherent water and agricultural policies, and low levels of public and external investment, among other factors. The main constraint on the achievement of Sudan’s full agricultural potential lies in the need for future development of water resources infrastructure to enable large-scale irrigation (LSI) expansion. In Sudan, the largest potential for irrigation development can be found in the Blue Nile Basin. Considering that the Blue Nile is a shared river and alone contributes nearly two-thirds of the average annual Nile flow, the development of appropriate hydraulic infrastructures will involve complex international political negotiations with its riparian neighbours. The Nile is a highly politicized river basin, and Sudan’s potential for large withdrawals for irrigation expansion is intimately embedded in Sudan’s complex relationship both to Egypt and Ethiopia. On the one hand, Sudan’s expansion of hydraulic and agriculture infrastructure is limited by the country’s commitment to existing water agreements, in particular the 1959 bilateral Nile Waters Agreement (NWA) with Egypt. On the other, Sudan is the country that has the greatest potential to influence the flow of Nile waters to its neighbour, due to the fact that it has far more available land to irrigate than other upstream riparians, which means the greatest potential for consumption of water.