South Sudan: Oil, the Environment and Border Conflicts

In this guest-article, Dr. Tore Knos, member of the Disaster Aid USA  Response Team and its Board of Directors, and Dr. Michele Zebich-Knos, Professor Emeritus at Kennesaw State University and former Director of the International Policy Master’s Program, discuss the current situation in South Sudan and how long-term strife affects the environment. This blog post is a reflection on Dr. Knos’ trip to South Sudan during last year’s dry season to facilitate delivery of tents and supplies for refugees along the border, and includes Dr. Zebich-Knos’ long-term policy perspective for the seemingly intractable border conflict, especially in the Abyei area.  The area is subject to border conflict and is a product of many years of civil war that culminated in the split of Sudan and the creation of a new country, South Sudan. 

Aerial view of housing compounds. Landing in Agok reveals traditional family compounds. Photo by Tore Knos.
Aerial view of housing compounds. Landing in Agok reveals traditional family compounds. Photo by Tore Knos.

Republic South Sudan: A New Country Facing Big Challenges

The Republic of South Sudan – South Sudan for short, is a new country that marked its independence from Sudan in July 2011 following a protracted series of civil wars starting in 1955.  The first war ended in 1972 only to see a second civil war begin in 1983. Fighting ended with when both sides signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.  Southern Sudan was granted autonomy within Sudan, but a referendum held in January 2011 moved the region toward secession and ultimately independence by July of the same year.

South Sudan is not a desert wasteland.  The Nile’s famous waters flow through South Sudan’s large clay basin which also serves a catchment area for water coming from highland regions of the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Unlike its arid northern neighbor, South Sudan is also home to one of the world’s largest swamps, the Sudd wetland.

While oil is the country’s main natural resource and accounts for 98% of South Sudan’s revenue (CIA World Factbook), most inhabitants rely on cattle for their livelihood and use charcoal as their main fuel source, which contributes to deforestation.  Oil reserves, located around a contested border between Sudan and South Sudan, have yet to translate into wealth for the citizens of South Sudan.  Instead, many remain desperately poor and lack basic amenities such as potable water and adequate sanitation.

With its vast potential revenue, oil is one of the main points of contention between Sudan and South Sudan, and has contributed to tensions between the two countries. Of note is the fact that most of the region’s oil is located in South Sudan, or along contested border areas, while pipelines and downstream operations such as refineries are in Sudan.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in March 2012, “75% of oil production originates from the South.”

Delivering Tents to Refugees in Abyei

Following independence in July 2011, border conflict – especially in the disputed Abyei area – was still prevalent and much needed humanitarian relief came from international sources.  Accompanied by Larry Agee, another Disaster Aid USA response volunteer, Tore Knos travelled together to South Sudan where their task was to facilitate the safe arrival of Disaster Aid’s cargo and make sure all required government approvals were obtained.  The shipment arrived in Juba, the capital, and was transported by truck to the northern town of Agok for final distribution in several Abyei villages.

Disaster Aid USA is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) established by Rotarians to provide disaster aid and relief world-wide.  Since the border area is rural, it should come as no surprise that we too were housed in a tent at the Mercy Corps camp in Agok.  Mercy Corps, Médecins Sans Frontières and the Irish NGO  GOAL were instrumental in providing healthcare assistance to the area.

While in Juba and travelling northwards, a noticeable environmental issue was that of non-degradable plastics, especially disposable water bottles. Since water is of questionable quality, many people drink bottled water.  During the dry season when someone disposes of a water bottle, it often remains on the ground among layers of other crushed bottles until the rainy season washes it into the Nile. Ultimately, we’re talking about what might be millions of crushed water bottles.

Refugee Tents. Family in front of a Disaster Aid USA tent. Photo courtesy of Disaster Aid USA.
Refugee Tents. Family in front of a Disaster Aid USA tent. Photo courtesy of Disaster Aid USA.

We did most of our work in Agok, but also travelled north well into the Abeyei region where we were under United Nations escort by Ethiopian troops.  We went into six villages and, in each one, we met with local officials/elders – usually about 5-10 people – to make sure we had their approval to enter the village, distribute, and set up tents.  These village elders had been driven out of the area by the Sudanese Army (SA) and were returning to assess damages and start the rebuilding process.  What we saw were traditional round buildings, 15-30 feet in diameter; most had been totally destroyed, and the remaining ones were partially destroyed.  We saw health centers and schools which were largely picked apart by looters, presumably Sudanese troops from the north.  Whatever could be recycled such as wiring, plumbing materials, and copper was removed.  In one instance, a new Siemens generator was burned and copper wiring removed probably for scrap recycling.  Wiring from telephone poles was also stripped.  Anything reusable or recyclable was removed.  All of the desks in one school, for example, had been piled outside and burned.

There were no “refugee camps” as one would typically classify them.  What we saw were residents living traditionally in these round structures on 0.5-1 acre compounds.  Many of the residents in Agok would take in relatives coming from the northern Abeyei region and build make-shift shelter for them within the compound.  To build the shelters, they would use grass and other items that were discarded from refugee operations.  Among these items were plastic wrappings and large plastic tarps for covering food bags used by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).   Hopefully the tents that we provided – complete with privacy dividers, would encourage the refugees to leave their temporary shelters, move back to their own villages and reconstruct their own homes as soon as possible.

In January 2012, South Sudan ceased its oil operations in retaliation for excessive transit fees imposed by Sudan.  However, by January, the Disaster Aid USA shipment of tents was well underway, winding ultimately from the port in Mombasa, Kenya to South Sudan by truck.  Only months later did we come to learn how close both countries actually came to all-out war in April 2012.  Our goal in February 2012 was to coordinate the delivery and distribution of a container load of tents and supplies to the border area.  This was achieved and the tents arrived at their destination as planned.

March 2013 Agreement: A Permanent Step Forward?

While no new war took place, clashes between Sudanese and Southern Sudanese forces continued to be a threat until March 12, 2013 when both sides reached an agreement to quell the oil-related hostilities and stand down troops along the border.   The timeframe given to resume production is about three weeks.

If this agreement remains in force over the oil issue, both sides will have the opportunity to resolve border demarcation issues. Another unresolved conflict in Abyei focuses on cattle grazing and involves the South Sudanese pastoral Dinka people and the nomadic Misseriya people from the north.

A UN vehicle accompanied us during our village visits in Abyei. Photo by Tore Knos
A UN vehicle accompanied us during our village visits in Abyei. Photo by Tore Knos

While the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) work with the South Sudanese government to assess resource management and other environmental concerns, achieving a lasting peace that leads to stability and increased financial revenue takes priority. With durable peace in hand, South Sudan can begin to build a meaningful regulatory framework needed for managing the environment. Yet such an outcome needs greater appreciation for the ecological system that inherently transcends current political borders.

Buffer Solution: A Transboundary Protected Area (TBPA) for Abyei?

After so much war, disputes over oil resources and grazing rights in the Abyei region hinder a sustained peace.  North Sudan has pipelines and oil refineries, and South Sudan has most of the oil.  This situation translates into a somewhat symmetrical dilemma with each side holding a crucial piece of the oil puzzle, and both sides suffer when oil is not flowing. The March 2013 agreement is a good start toward creation of other security arrangements. One possible arrangement is the creation of a transboundary protected area in parts, or all of Abyei.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  a TBPA is “an area of land and/or sea that straddles one or more boundaries between states . . . beyond the limits of national sovereignty or jurisdiction, whose constituent parts are especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed co-operatively through legal or other effective means (IUCN, 2001).”

The latest agreement could be the catalyst for diplomats from both countries to formally delineate a jointly governed trans-boundary protected area in Abyei. This TBPA could also serve as a conservation and development area in which oil production and cattle grazing occur, albeit in an environmentally monitored way. Details of TBPA status would have to be worked out among both countries as well as local residents. Joint management offers a new approach to contentious border land that happens to be strategically located in an oil producing area.   While this plan would not affect South Sudan’s domestic solid waste problem, deforestation or charcoal (i.e. carbon) pollution, it would nevertheless help resolve a border conflict which saps energy and money away from pressing development issues on both sides of the border.


Meet the Author
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.