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Water is Africa's lifeblood. Rainfall on its central mountains feeds Lake Victoria, the world's third largest lake. It in turn, feeds the White Nile, which flows north.
The writhing river becomes sleek and mild near the city of Bor in central South Sudan. Here, the river sprawls into a vast wetland, swamping hundreds of kilometers of land.
The region is called the Sudd, an Arabic word meaning "barrier."
I visited the region during the rainy season in early September. Fields were inundated and pools had appeared in villages. Local children fished in front of their homes and splashed about in fun.
The rainy season brings its own problems. Vehicle traffic halts as roads become impassable with mud.
I journeyed downriver in a small boat. Large clumps of aquatic weeds drifted past. Our passage meandered as we dodged the many sand bars and floating islands of reeds and papyrus. The larger clusters were several hundred meters in diameter.
In this virtual maze it was impossible to tell where the river ended and the wetlands began.
"When the plants grow thick, the river route changes," said 45-year-old boatman Michael Anyieth. "Sometimes weeds entangle propellers and disable boats."
Malaria-carrying mosquitoes breed on the wetlands. That can cause epidemics. Mosquitoes were the bane of 19th century European explorers.
All this shows why the region is called the "barrier."
The river's slow motion here means the water evaporates rapidly. The White Nile is said to lose half of its volume as it crosses this region.
To prevent the loss of this valuable water, a plan exists to channel it into what would become the world's largest canal. The Jonglei Canal would run for over 350 kilometers from north to south through the Sudd.
The idea was first proposed after World War II. Egypt strongly supported the idea because it would mean more water downstream.
Construction of the canal began in the latter half of the 1970s, but it halted when the Sudanese Civil War intensified. Huge pieces of excavating machinery now lie rusting away at former construction sites.
South Sudan came into being after the civil war ended. It separated from Sudan in July 2011. Today, there are mounting calls to resume construction.
"It would make large-scale irrigated agriculture possible near the canal, and would make river transport more viable," said University of Juba professor and Nile researcher Abednego Akok. "The benefits for South Sudan would be considerable."
South Sudan's road infrastructure was devastated by the civil war, so river transport is viewed as an essential resource for the distribution of goods.
There is, therefore, a compelling economic argument for the canal's construction, while many believe completing the project would meet the interests of nations downstream such as Egypt.
Even so, inhabitants along the canal's planned route are often reliant on the Sudd for their livelihoods. They catch fish that graze on aquatic plants, and on the river's sand bars in the dry season they grow crops such as corn and graze livestock. If the canal is built, the river and wetlands as they are now would shrink as the water is redirected.
"Generations of my ancestors lived in the same place for hundreds of years," said 60-year-old Achiek Mayaw, from the village of Jawaing on the outskirts of Bor. "I don't know much about the canal, but the wetlands are our life source."
The canal would have an immeasurable impact on the surrounding environment, so the South Sudanese government is approaching the project cautiously.
"The canal would only benefit countries downstream," said Emmanuel Parmenas Lupai, director general of the ministry of water resources and irrigation. "Losing the wetlands could have unforeseeable repercussions, such as a reduction in the amount of rain. It could also affect forestry in adjacent nations."
"The Sudd is not a barrier," he said. "On the contrary, it produces numerous benefits. These beautiful wetlands are the natural habitat of hippopotamuses and crocodiles, and will become the focal point of our tourism industry."
THE SUDANESE CIVIL WAR AND SOUTH SUDAN'S INDEPENDENCE
In 1983, the nation of Sudan introduced a divisive religion-based legal code. Although the country was one divided between a mostly Muslim north and a mostly Christian south, the Muslim north-led government imposed Islamic law. This sparked a civil war which resulted in the deaths of around 2 million people.
In 2005, the two sides signed a comprehensive peace agreement. Six years later, a referendum on self-determination saw the south gain independence as South Sudan. In doing so, the country was recognized as a member state of the United Nations.
However, armed clashes have escalated along the border between Sudan and South Sudan which is rich in petroleum resources, and the latter's borders remain ill-defined.
Meanwhile, tension rose in 2003 in western Darfur, where rivalries and conflict between anti-government groups and Arab militia created countless refugees. In response to events there, the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, issued an arrest warrant for the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, indicting him with charges including crimes against humanity.
Newer news items:
- South Sudan: Mental healthcare for refugees - Medecins Sans Frontieres - 31/10/2012
- Total expects to resume South Sudan exploration soon - Reuters - 31/10/2012
- Humanitarian shares hope for a brighter future for South Sudan - Post-Bulletin - 30/10/2012
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- South Sudan: How President Salva was betrayed - Indepth Africa - 29/10/2012
Older news items:
- China sends police unit to South Sudan - UPI.com - 27/10/2012
- How Will the Muslim Brotherhood Govern Egypt? Look to Sudan. - U.S. News World Report (blog) - 27/10/2012
- Sudan rebels shell southern city during defense minister visit - Reuters - 27/10/2012
- Capital of Sudan's South Kordofan shelled again - gulfnews.com - 27/10/2012
- Chinese peace-keeping police set off to South Sudan - Xinhua - 26/10/2012
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