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Impact of improved rural water supplies on settlement distribution in western Sudan the case of east Kordofan and el-fasher districts

Yaqoub Abdalla Mohamed Department of Geography, University of Khartoum

Water in western Sudan as in any semi-arid environment is a scarce resource. This area is characterized by a perennial shortage of drinking water, a relatively low population density, and large areas with high agricultural and grazing potentials. Shortage of drinking water for both human and animal consumption is the main limiting factor on economic and social development there. The Sudan Government has recognized these facts and has embarked on a programme to improve rural water supplies, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Traditionally, the people of the area depended on surface water such as intermittent strearhs, natural depressions-fulas, rahads, and turas-and hand-dug wells. In recent years, technology has enabled man to make available more abundant water supplies. This additional water has provided a large resource base to support increases in human and animal populations. The search for more water has become a neverending endeavour of the Sudan Government.

Since 1918 when the first borehole was drilled in el-Obeid, the government has become more involved in the problems of rural water supplies, using modern techniques for drilling boreholes and excavating hafirs. The form of water provision differs from one region to another, due to geological structure, soils, relief, and amount of precipitation (Fig. 1)

Evaluation and assessment of the government's rural water supplies programmes has received little attention (Barbour, 1961a, 1961b; Lebon, 1965; el-Bushra, 1967). This paper attempts to highlight the effect of these programmes on population and settlement redistribution in two selected districts in western Sudan.

FIG. 1. Distribution of the Different Forms of Water Provision

The government's rural water supplies programmes are based on a number of assumptions which are not explicitly stated. The following are among them.
(1 ) In a water-deficient area with relatively high potential, provision of adequate and perennial sources of water in the right places is regarded as the single most important factor to stimulate economic and social development (Adepetu, 1971). This assumption is in line with the "improvement" approach to rural development followed in western Sudan as against the "transformation" approach followed in the Gezira and other large-scale irrigation schemes. The former policy involves the provision of small and minor services that generate and stimulate development in the surrounding areas.
(2) It is assumed that if adequate water supplies are provided in a newly opened area with adequate grazing, pastoral nomads may be tempted to change their way of life, because nomadism is seen as an adaptation to an environment which is lacking in certain basic needs, i.e. grazing and water.
(3) It is also assumed that proper utilization of agricultural land depends on water availability. Lack of water will result in a sharp decline in available labour, because some family members will be involved in fetching water. So it is implicit in this assumption that provision of water will free labour formerly used to fetch water. This can then be used in cultivation leading to an increase in production.
(4) Water provision may also help population redistribution, influence location of settlements, and control their size.

As mentioned earlier, this paper attempts to evaluate the impact of improved water supplies on settlements in elFasher and Eastern Kordofan districts. Of course, human settlements are seldom based on the availability of water alone, but water provision is found to play an important role in the location of new settlements. It is also clear that the creation of watering points has become a mechanism through which various forms of interactions are affected (Mohamed, 1975).

Settlement Distribution

In pre-colonial times, people organized their habitats according to a framework imposed on them by the natural environment, traditional socio-economic systems, accumulated experience, and rudimentary techniques of production. The available information on types and distribution of settlements goes back to a period prior to Turko-Egyptian rule in 1820 (Bruce, 1806; Burckhardt, 1819; Broune, 1799; aI -Tunisi, 1965; el- Bushra, 1971).

The settlements in the areas under study were based on tribal structure with a few large centres that functioned as tribal centres. The colonial authorities introduced a new system of administration, economy, and new techniques of production and transportation that drastically changed the spatial structure of the tribal society and its economy. As a result of the policy of indirect rule, two types of centres emerged: the centres of tribal and local authority and the centres of civil administration (Figs. 2 and 3).

The colonial policy towards rural areas was one of providing basic services such as health, schools, and water points. Settlements with permanent water sources attracted both population and services and became functional central places. In the absence of spatial planning in guiding water provision, water points became meeting places for people of diverse modes of living. This atmosphere encouraged inter-personal contacts and spread of information. As a result, settlements with economic possibilities and location advantages attracted both government and private invest meets to the extent that they emerged as nodes of development and provided a range of services.

FIG. 2. The Period of First Settlement of Sampled Villages in East Kordofan

FIG. 3. The Period of First Settlement of Sampled Villages in el-Fasher

Upon closer inspection the spatial distribution of settlements in both districts is seen to reflect the uneven distribution of water supplies rather than the distribution of facilities and services. The capacity of the water source influences both the size of the settlement as well as the number and nature of services located there. Boreholes are considered one of the more drastic measures for solving the water problem in the two districts, but the bigger the capacity of the borehole the larger the area it serves. This leads to both human and animal concentration round the borehole and results in soil deterioration and overgrazing. The alternative method now employed is to limit the capacity of the borehole. Thus, there is a search for the optimum population which a particular borehole can support. This depends on daily yield and the minimum per capita consumption needed for healthy living. Knowledge of the optimum size is very important because it provides an indication of the number of water points needed to satisfy the minimum needs of an area and helps to determine whether every water point has a population of the optimum size, capable of making full use of the available services.

Upon reviewing these considerations, it becomes clear that the borehole programme in the area south of el-Fasher created what may be termed a corridor of development (Fig. 4). A number of boreholes opened along Wadi cl-Ku Basin attracted new settlers from depleted areas as far as northern Darfur where the Zaghawa tribes were subjected to frequent cycles of droughts.

This paper assumes that the uneven spatial distribution of settlements reflects the uneven distribution of water supplies. To test this hypothesis, a nearest-neighbour analysis was carried out. To do this all the villages shown on the 1:250,000 map sheets, as well as new villages with more than 20 households, were selected for the calculation.

A better picture of settlement distribution in the two districts is given by the new administrative units: the people's rural councils,. which divide the districts into smaller units. This helps to show local variations. The formula used for the calculation is that of Toyne ( 1971 ):


Rn is a description of the distribution;
D is the mean distance between the nearest neighbours;
A is the area of the people's rural council; and
N is the number of villages considered in the people's rural council.

TABLE 1. Nearest-Neighbour Calculation

Rural council Rn Description
el-Fasher District  
Keltal 1.0 random
Tawila 1.3 close to random
el-Fasher 1.4 close to random
East Kordefan District:  
Umm Ruwaba 1.3 close to random
Ashana 1.2 close to random
Sherkeila 0.8 close to random
el-Rahad 0 8 close to random
Umm Dam 0.9 close to random

The values of Rn occur within the range 0-2.15. If the value is 0, it is described as clustered; if 1.0 as random, and if 2.15, as regular.

The results of the calculations are shown in Table 1. The value of Rn obtained is close to random but there are slight variations. These variations are caused by the distribution and capacity of water points.

In el-Fasher District, it was found that 48.8 per cent of the villages get their water supplies from wells and 43.9 per cent from boreholes. As the methods of obtaining water from shallow wells requires a lot of effort, boreholes attract larger populations, creating several medium- to large-sized villages. The Rn value for Eastern Kordofan indicates a settlement distribution slightly less than random. In this district 56.1 per cent of the villages get their water supplies from boreholes and 39 per cent from wells.

The significance of the Rn calculation shows that sparse distribution of watering points leads to concentration and clustering of settlements, so the value of Rn will be close to zero. On the other hand, uniform distribution gives a value of 2.15, indicating some form of regular distribution associated with spatial planning. For both districts the Rn values obtained are close to random, reflecting the importance of physical and historical factors, as well as the influence of water availability.

Water Points Attract Services

The extension of minor services to the rural areas in the two districts is also influenced by the amount and nature of the water supply. Settlements with permanent water supply have attracted both population and services and have become meeting grounds for people of diverse modes of life, culture, and attitude, leading to exchange not only of products but also of ideas and information of various kinds. To test this effect, an inventory of the different services was prepared. The inventory determined the total number of services found in each village, and the total score indicated the centrality of a village. On the basis of this simple measure, some villages stand out with high scores. The maximum number of services found in one village is 14.

TABLE 2. Adequacy of Services

East Kordofan el-Fasher
Number of
Number of
0-4 21 poor 23 poor
5-9 17 average 8 average
10-14 2 good 4 good

This simple scale has been used to divide the villages into three categories of poor, average, and good in terms of services (Table 2). This information was used to produce maps of development "surfaces" (Figs. 4 and 5). This was done by plotting the number of services for each village and by drawing isolines around them to show areas within 20 km of a service centre.

The two maps show contrasting features. In Eastern Kordofan nodal development is influenced by transport lines and water supplies. The continuous nodal belts in Eastern Kordofan are the result of the interplay of political and physical factors.

The map for el-Fasher reveals a different picture. Here the nodal zones are patchy and disconnected, a clear reflection of adequacy of water supply and economic potential. The areas to the west and north-west are adequately served. A disconnected belt is found in the soutern part, while a relatively continous belt is found in the centre, formed by new settlements.

It is clear from this work that water points become population concentration centres as well as service centres. The government may use a water programme to influence the location of settlements and to control the size of settlements by limiting the number of wells and their capacity.

Future Research

Evaluation and assessment of the impact of a water supply programme on rural areas is necessary to enable forecasts of its effects on social and economic development. So far the performance and effects of deep wells on both nomadic and settled population have received little attention. Research is needed to illuminate the following: (a) the impact on settlement and population redistribution, to understand changes that have taken place in size, pattern, geographic location, and population of settlements since the initiation of a water programme; (b) the impact on land-use and human activities, to see how the water programme has modified nomadic ways of life, as well as how it has influenced crop production; (c) evaluation of government programmes in terms of management of water points, role of self-help in solving local water needs, and consumer satisfaction and user choice; and (d) assessment of the impact of water programmes on indirect economic and social benefits, such as services.

FIG. 4. El-Fasher Development Surfaces

FIG. 5. East Kordofan Development Surfaces


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Tunisi, M.O. al-.1965. Taskbidh al-Adhan bi Sirat Bilad al-Arab wa-lSudan . Translated by K. M . Asakar and M. M. M used . Cairo.


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