New Chinese Dam Project Fuels Ethnic Conflict in Sudan

01/20/2011 By: Peter Bosshard

Protest against the Kajbar Dam in Sudan

Dams have impoverished tens of thousands of people and triggered serious human rights  violations in Sudan. Now Chinese companies have won contracts to build three more  hydropower projects in the country.
Of particular concerns are plans to dam the Nile near Kajbar, on the lands of ancient Nubia. This project has already caused massive human rights abuses. Affected people are strongly opposed to it, and have raised the specter of a second Darfur conflict.

The Sudanese government plans to transform the Nile, the only stretch of fertile land north of Khartoum, into a string of five reservoirs (see map). Built by Chinese, German and French companies, the Merowe Dam was completed two years ago. The project doubled Sudan’s electricity generation, but displaced more than 50,000 people from the
Nile Valley to arid desert locations. Thousands of people who refused to leave their homes were flushed out by the reservoir, and protests were violently suppressed. The UN Rapporteur on Housing Rights expressed “deep concern” about the human rights violations in the project, and asked the dam builders to halt construction in 2007 – to no avail.

Next in line are the Kajbar and Dal dams. The Kajbar Dam on the Nile’s third cataract would have a height of about 20 meters, create a reservoir of 110 square kilometers, and generate 360 megawatts of electricity. The project would displace more than 10,000 people and submerge an estimated 500 archeological sites. The Dal Dam on the
second cataract would have a height of 25-45 meters and a capacity of 340-450 megawatts. It would displace 5,000-10,000 people. The hydrologist Seif al-Din Hamad Abdalla has estimated that about 2.5 cubic kilometers of water – 3 percent of the Nile’s annual flow – would evaporate from the two reservoirs every year.

While the Kajbar and Dal projects are smaller, the stakes are as high as in the case of the Merowe Dam. The projects are located in Nubia, the ancient bridge between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa. Nubians have developed their own language and civilization over thousands of years, but now risk being annihilated as a nation. In the 1960s, 120,000

Nubian people were displaced from their ancestral lands in Egypt and Sudan for the construction of the Aswan Dam. Within Sudan, they were moved to an irrigation scheme 700 kilometers away, which turned into a complete development disaster. “By flooding the last of the remaining Nubian lands,” warns Arif Gamal , who was displaced by the Aswan Dam, “the Nubians are reduced to a group of people with no sense of memory, no past and no future to look for.”The people from the Kajbar and Dal areas watched the fate of their
neighbors in the Nile Valley, and knew that the government would not
make any concessions when dealing with Nubians. They formed a
committee to protect their interests, and opposed the dams from the
very beginning. In December 2010, they warned: “We will never allow
any force on the earth to blur our identity and destroy our heritage
and nation. Nubians will never play the role of victims, and will
never sacrifice for the second time to repeat the tragedy of (the
Aswan Dam).” A spokesperson called the Kajbar Project a “humanitarian
disaster” which the affected people would resist by all means,
including armed opposition. The Los Angeles Times reported “fears of
another Darfur” if the Kajbar Dam was built.

Chinese companies have expressed an interest in the Kajbar Project
since 1997. When Sudanese and Chinese engineers carried out
feasibility studies in 2007, thousands of people staged repeated
protest demonstrations. The authorities cracked down harshly. In April
2007, security forces shot and wounded at least five protestors. On
June 13, 2007, security officers killed four peaceful protestors in an
ambush and wounded more than 15 others. (You can witness the massacre
towards the end of this video.) The government arrested some 26
people, including journalists who tried to cover the massacre, and
detained them for several weeks. The UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan
deplored the “excessive force” and “arbitrary arrests and prosecutions
to stifle community protest against the Kajbar dam” in a report.

For years the government did not disclose whether it would actually
move forward with the Kajbar and Dal projects. In April 2010, it
awarded a $838 million contract for the Upper Atbara Project , an
irrigation and hydropower complex in Eastern Sudan, to a Chinese
consortium. Two months later, China’s Gezhouba Corporation got a
contract to build the Shereik Dam, a 420 megawatt project on the Nile,
at a cost of $711 million. The Shereik Dam in particular would create
a big reservoir and affect a large number of people.

Abdeen Mustafa Omer, a renewable energy expert at the University of
Nottingham, has documented a very large solar energy potential for
Sudan, and a big wind energy potential particularly in the lower Nile
valley. These technologies could generate electricity without the
destruction and conflict that the Kajbar and other dams would cause.
Yet the Sudanese government does not promote them.

While the government remained silent about its plans, Sinohydro, the
world’s largest hydropower company, announced in early November 2010
that it had won a $705 million contract to build the Kajbar Project
over five years. At the end of December, 59 Sinohydro workers left
from China for Sudan. At the same time, Sinohydro advertised jobs for
work on the Kajbar Dam in Pakistan. (In the case of the Bui Dam in
Ghana, the company hired 60 of its 600 foreign workers in Pakistan,
reportedly because they were cheaper than Chinese labor.)

Since 2006, Chinese authorities have made increasing efforts to
promote good community relations in overseas projects. The State
Council and other government institutions have all called for the
establishment of good community relations in Chinese investments.
Sinohydro is currently preparing its own social and environmental
guideline for overseas projects. Building the Kajbar Dam with a
government that brutally represses the rights of the host population
would fly in the face of such commitments.

In 2007, China (along with the majority of member states) voted in
favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the
UN. This document stipulates that indigenous peoples have the right of
consent regarding “any project affecting their lands.” The Kajbar Dam,
which is strongly opposed by the indigenous Nubian population,
violates the UN Declaration.

Sooner or later, companies which engage in projects that violate human
rights will be held to account. PetroChina hoped to raise $10 billion
when it listed at the New York stock exchange in 2000, but could raise
less than $3 billion because of the operations of its parents company
in Sudan. A German organization recently filed a criminal complaint
against managers of Lahmeyer International, alleging their complicity
in the human rights abuses of the Merowe Dam. Federal and state laws
will prevent the French company Alstom from getting lucrative
government contracts in the US because of its active role in the same

The Kajbar Project is still at a very early stage. Sinohydro and other
companies can still learn the lessons of earlier human rights
disasters in Sudan. They should heed the warnings of the affected
communities and stay out of the Kajbar Dam. International Rivers has
been engaged in a dialogue with Sinohydro since 2009, and will
strongly support the interests of the people affected by the project.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He
blogs at

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One Response to New Chinese Dam Project Fuels Ethnic Conflict in Sudan

  1. Jennifer says:

    The World Bank estimates that forcible “development-induced displacement and resettlement” now affects 10 million people per year. According to the World Bank an estimated 33 million people have been displaced by development projects such as dams, urban development and irrigation canals in India alone.

    India is well ahead in this respect. A country with as many as over 3600 large dams within its belt can never be the exceptional case regarding displacement. The number of development induced displacement is higher than the conflict induced displacement in India. According to Bogumil Terminski an estimated more than 10 million people have been displaced by development each year.

    Athough the exact number of development-induced displaced people (DIDPs) is difficult to know, estimates are that in the last decade 90–100 million people have been displaced by urban, irrigation and power projects alone, with the number of people displaced by urban development becoming greater than those displaced by large infrastructure projects (such as dams). DIDPs outnumber refugees, with the added problem that their plight is often more concealed.

    This is what experts have termed “development-induced displacement.” According to Michael Cernea, a World Bank analyst, the causes of development-induced displacement include water supply (dams, reservoirs, irrigation); urban infrastructure; transportation (roads, highways, canals); energy (mining, power plants, oil exploration and extraction, pipelines); agricultural expansion; parks and forest reserves; and population redistribution schemes.

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