SUDAN: Watermelons, conflict and climate change

Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Several hundred kilometres from the simmering conflicts between pastoralists and farmers [over natural resources] in Sudan's Darfur region, the two communities in the village of Gereigikh in North Kordofan State have learnt to cool the tension with watermelons.

"Our farmers discovered that whenever the Kawahla tribe [traditionally pastoral] brought their livestock into the fields, the animal droppings helped improve production, so the members of the Gawamha [traditionally farmers] started planting watermelons to attract the livestock to the field," recalled Ad-Dukhri Al-Sayed, a community leader in Gereigikh, about 100km northeast of the state capital, El Obeid. "The situation has improved so much. Now everyone lives in peace, we never have problems."

Most of Sudan comprises arid land or desert, and lies in the Sahel, a region described by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) as the most vulnerable in the world to droughts.

Historically, there has always been tension over land and grazing rights between nomads and farmers, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conflict resolution project document . "But recently, some parts of the country have been caught in a complex tangle of severe droughts and dwindling resources."

As a result, the pressure on scarce resources like water and pasture has become the trigger of most conflicts, and climate change is set to exacerbate the situation.

Peaceful coexistence

The traditionally volatile relationship between farmers and herders has never escalated into a crisis in North Kordofan because the communities have found a way to co-exist. Several decades ago, members of the Kawahla tribe lived outside the predominantly Gawamha village of Iyal Ali, less than 100km from El Obeid, the North Kordofan capital. Then they moved into the village, and now they have become part of the community and even intermarry.

Despite several rounds of chai, the villagers struggle to explain why they have been more successful at keeping the peace, while tribes in neighbouring states have often resorted to conflict. "It all depends on the individual," grinned Gasmalla Mohammed, a Kawahla who lives in the village with his family. "If you want to create trouble, you will react to any angry comment or reaction; if you don't, then there is no trouble."

Faisal Eljack of SOS Sahel UK, a development non-governmental organisation and an implementing partner of the UNDP conflict resolution project, explained: "The two communities in North Kordofan have developed a symbiotic relationship - they have relationships in the market place over the supply of manure, labour, they buy livestock from each other. These relationships have cemented over the years."

The two communities have become interdependent on each other economically, particularly during periods of drought, said Sumaya Zakieldin of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Khartoum. In an assessment of a climate change adaptation project, Zakieldin and three other researchers found that the farmers in Gereigikh often sold water to migrating tribes.

The pastoralists also tended to stay for longer periods because a mutually beneficial relationship developed. "The herders supply the farmers with dairy products such milk, butter and cheese, while the farmers supply them with agricultural produce." The farmers in the region grow millet, sorghum, vegetables and cash crops like sesame and hibiscus.

The risk of conflict

But the risk of a flare-up is always there, usually over animals grazing on cropland and sharing water points with the herders' livestock. "So far they seem to have managed it well because the tribal system, where traditional leaders arbitrate conflicts, is very strong in the area," said Zakieldin.

The more serious disputes take place during the dry season, between pastoralists who migrate from South Kordofan and farmers in the north. "These pastoralists often have their own land in the south and merely migrate up to escape from the harsh environment - the pastoral corridors, also called transhumance routes, are the key site of conflicts in these instances," said Eljack.

"The routes are recognised corridors used by pastoralists to move their animals (mainly cattle and camels) through farmed areas between seasonal pastures. Such routes have a long history: in North Kordofan and some routes are said to be a hundred years old. Routes are generally surrounded by cropped land and are between 20 and 200 metres wide, depending on the intensity of the cropping and the presence of villages," the UNDP document commented.

More heat, less rain

An increasing scarcity of resources as a result of climate change is projected, so the communities drinking the chai of peace in North Kordofan might have some lessons to offer their neighbouring states.

By 2060 temperatures are expected to go up by 3.1°C during August (average 31°C), and by between 1.1°C and 2.1°C during January (average 23°C); rainfall is expected to decrease by about 6mm a month during the rainy season, "which is quite critical when the region receives only a total monthly rainfall of 300mm", said Zakieldin.

"But it is the distribution and the frequency of the expected monthly 300mm which is even more critical. Villagers in the North Kordofan area have reported to us that at times they receive only one shower - in fact, the lengthening of the period between showers has begun to impact on the green cover and crop production." She said the shorter rainfall periods were affecting winter crops, such as wheat in the Bara region, about 60km from El Obeid.

According to Balgis Osman-Elasha, a senior researcher with the Sudanese government's Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources, drought is threatening the ongoing cultivation of about 12 million hectares of rain-fed, mechanised farmland, and 6.6 million hectares of traditional rain-fed land; pastoral and nomadic groups in the semi-arid areas of Sudan are also being affected.

"People often forget that competition over scarce resources such as water and pasture, brought on by climate change, is one of the triggering factors of conflict in Northern Sudan," said Osman-Elasha, one of the main authors of IPCC's report on adaptation.

In a 2007 report, Sudan: Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said the "scale of historical climate change, as recorded in Northern Darfur, is almost unprecedented: the reduction in rainfall has turned millions of hectares of already marginal semi-desert grazing land into desert. The impact of climate change is considered to be directly related to the conflict in the region, as desertification has added significantly to the stress on the livelihoods of pastoralist societies, forcing them to move south to find pasture."

Scientists in the region have noted that that by listing climate change as one of the triggers they are not trying to deny that other factors, such as economic, political, social and military domination of the country by a narrow elite in northern Sudan, have also been at play.

Takes more than watermelons

"The disputes [over resources] in North Kordofan have been easier to resolve, as they are perhaps not as complex as others, which have multiple triggers," said Osman-Elasha.

Eljack of SOS Sahel UK, said: "The situation will always get complicated with political interference, as is happening elsewhere in Sudan - there is no political interference here [in North Kordofan]."

Discussion is a way of life in Sudan and traditional mediation or 'judiyya' sessions often soothe tensions. In a 'judiyya' session "the aim is less to find the truth of the situation, but to reach a point where both parties can live with the definition of what has happened. To do this, rhetorical skills are important, appealing to the wisdom of the parties and to their honour, but the process is also political, and pressure is put on the parties to agree," the UNDP document explained.

Local officials in North Kordofan point out that disputes between the Kawahla and the Gawamha tribes have been easier to resolve because they "share the same roots - they are both Arabic."

The tribes in North Kordofan believe they should share three things: water, rangeland and fire, "according to their religious and cultural principles", the researchers said in their climate change assessment study. "This has been the way of life for the tribes for centuries, because each of them knows that next year might turn out to be a lean year for them and they might need their neighbouring tribe to share their resources, so the principle - help your neighbours when you can - always applies," explained Ahmed Hanafi, one of the researchers.

Maintenance of the green cover in the transhumance corridors could also reduce the chances of conflict, as this would reduce the risk of the herders' livestock wandering into cropland, said Zakieldin. "The communities need to strengthen their relationship of mutual benefit." The strengthening of social ties by intermarriage has already helped: "It is almost difficult to tell a Kawahla from a Gawamha in some villages now," said Hanafi. Besides, no one wants another Darfur or a Chad interrupting the communities' daily rounds of tea.