Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

IV. Conclusions and recommendations

15. The lessons to be learnt


15. The lessons to be learnt

H. R. J. Davies

This publication has examined the interaction between man and the physical environment in a part of White Nile Province fronting the White Nile river in the Sudan, an area considered to have a very high risk of desertification. Physically it is made up of three main zones orientated north to south and following on from each other in a westerly direction, from flood plain through clay plain to sandy qoz. The last covers most of the area and is made up of fixed dune sands; the delicate balance between contemporary rainfall conditions and vegetation is maintained so long as neither intensive crop-growing and grazing nor climatic change intervene to upset it.

The traditional system of land use by man was pastoral nomadism, with some crop-growing both on the rainlands and along the river. The methods of cultivation employed involved crop production for only a small part of the year. Along the river,gerf cultivation relied upon the soil water left by the falling annual flood waters, whilst the shadouf and sagia irrigation methods, though used with much ingenuity, could only irrigate small areas because of the wide gap between high flood and low-season water-levels. For the nomadic pastoralist the traditional north-to-south seasonal movement was augmented by movements to and from the White Nile to take advantage of dry-season pastures that were also created by the falling river.

Under these conditions a state of equilibrium developed between man and the physical environment, such that an ecological balance could be maintained. The system could tolerate variations in its different parts providing these were not too great, were of short duration, and did not all occur at the same time. Thus a short series of dry years could be accommodated by a movement further south by the nomadic pastoralists or by a greater concentration by both pastoralist and cultivator on the riverbank lands. Similarly, temporary increases in population- e.g. during the Mahdiya (18851898)-could be accommodated by increasing the areas under cultivation. The system was able to cope too with certain permanent changes, such as the increases in population and animals which occurred in the region before the Second World War. Beyond a certain point, however, the equilibrium was in danger of collapse.

Fears that this point was being approached were first expressed in the 1940s. The Sudan Soil Conservation Committee Report of 1944 noted signs of overgrazing and overcultivation in the White Nile, and here, as in other parts of the north, it noted that changing circumstances demanded "planned management" of lands. This theme was again reiterated in the 1950s by the Sudan Government. The particular change that has put an intolerable strain on the system has been the increase in the number of people and animals. (The population of White Nile Province grew from 750,000 in 1955 to 950,000 in 1983; cattle numbers in Sudan between 1956 and 1981 are estimated to have increased from 6.9 to 18.8 million, with 5 per cent in White Nile Province.) The increase in population has been further exacerbated by the general tendency of people in the Sudan to migrate eastwards, so that migrating cultivators and pastoralists have been replaced by newcomers less well versed in local conditions. At the same time there has been an increase in the material expectations of peasants.

Other pressures on the region have resulted from the general process of agricultural development in northern Sudan, based upon irrigation; this was facilitated in the White Nile by the completion of the Jebel Aulia Dam, which made pumpscheme irrigation more attractive. Eventually the banks became lined with pump schemes, and they too attracted workers from the west. Irrigation developments in the Gezira, where today the famous irrigation scheme takes in some 800,000 hectares (2 million feddans), have made this area, with the Three Towns, the economic core of the country. This process was facilitated by the confluence of the White and Blue Niles at Khartoum, a point of great strategic and political importance, where an urban concentration of over 1.5 million people has grown up, and where most of the country's industrial, economic, administrative, and political activities take place. As the great metropolitan centre of the country it has attracted manpower, expertise, and resources to itself, often to the detriment of neighbouring regions.

Even if it had been possible to maintain an ecological balance in the traditional system through all these changes, the inevitable downward climatic fluctuation to a series of drier years (1968 onwards, but especially 1968-1973 and 19841985) from a damper sequence (in the 1950s) was catastrophic in so far as any hope of adjustment was concerned. In other words, changes had occurred throughout the whole system.

However, it is possible to envisage a situation where changes throughout the system might lead to a new if different equilibrium. In truth, though it appears that the whole system has changed, in practice certain very important elements have not, and herein lies the region's problem. The attitude to the rainlands in particular has remained the same, and many traditional practices have been introduced into the towns and development schemes from these areas. At the same time the old views and attitudes of a still largely illiterate peasantry have been maintained. Change, therefore, has been partial, uneven, and largely unplanned in a truly regional sense.

The increase in population along the White Nile, in the Gezira, and in the Three Towns has created new demands for food, fuel, and industrial raw materials. The main aim of all irrigation projects in the Sudan to date has been to boost exports and substitute imports. Thus, the White Nile pump schemes were mainly established to produce cotton. Except for the fact that Khartoum North has some cotton textile factories and oil-seed crushing mills, this activity is largely divorced from the direct daily needs of the rural people. Though these schemes also produce aura, and in some cases a little wheat, most of the surplus cereals have been produced by traditional methods on the rainlands. However, this has had to come from a reduced area, and has been achieved by using unsuitable land and dispensing with fallows, and without new inputs of artificial fertilizer, under less favourable climatic conditions than in the past.

At the same time the expansion of areas under irrigation schemes and rainland crops has restricted the areas available to the nomads and other pastoralists. This has occurred as an increased population has brought greater demands than ever before for meat, cheese, and milk, but without any rainland pasture improvement schemes. In the original plans for White Nile pump schemes it was envisaged that they would grow lubia (hyacinth bean) for fodder as well as their cotton and aura. Today this is not done and the only substantial area under irrigated fodder in the White Nile is the rather fortuitous situation on the Gummuiya Scheme, where aura is cut green and lucerne is grown for local use and for sale in the Three Towns. The nomadic methods of animal-raising have changed very little, except for some limited use of ombaz (oil-seed cake). Without intervention the situation is not likely to improve much even with a series of good rainy seasons, as so many of the better grazing species have been eaten out.

The increased population also requires shelter and fuel. Both items have in the past been supplied by crop residues and other vegetational sources. The main source of fuel, accounting for some 90 per cent of the Sudan's energy needs, comes from the woodlands, either as firewood or charcoal. Even in the capital these sources account for some 80 per cent of fuel needs. Thus in a situation with more land cropped and grazed than ever before, and with demands for wood for fuel and house construction ever increasing, the pressure on the remaining vegetational resources has become intolerable because there is no system of afforestation and control of cutting to conserve what is left of the woodland resources. The development process has so far not led to a conversion from wood fuel to electricity and oil for domestic purposes, even in the capital.

One lesson that clearly emerges from this discussion is the need for an overall regional development policy for the arid lands of northern Sudan. A regional policy for rural development here needs to concern itself not only with the new technology to be introduced (pump-scheme irrigation) but also with the traditional systems that will need protection, adaptation, and change and with the way in which the various elements react together. A policy is required that will lead to improved pastures, a mixed farming programme and a rational use of the woodland resources for timber and fuel. In the new situation it may not be possible for the White Nile area to look after all its own needs and to provide for the agricultural needs of the capital. If this is so, then the necessary infrastructure of road, rail, and river transport will have to be provided, enabling supplies to be brought in from greater distances, even from overseas, and paid for out of export earnings.

At present the concept of an area specializing in what it can grow best is only dimly perceived in rural Sudan. Most peasants, including those of the White Nile, perceive things differently. In a desert margin area where periodic food shortages are common and animals have to be moved from pasture to pasture, the peasant is highly reluctant to give up basic food crops and to cultivate a different crop for sale, using his money income to buy his necessities. Undoubtedly, top priority for White Nile folk is to secure one's own food supply and feed for one's animals. Cash is of a much lower priority. This need for security underlies the decision of the farmers on the Gummuiya irrigation scheme to grow lucerne and sorghum rather than potentially lucrative fruit and vegetables for the nearby Khartoum market.

The failure of peasants to identify wholeheartedly with agriculture) development schemes in the White Nile is a matter for serious concern, and a second lesson to be learnt, therefore, is the need to understand how and why the peasant perceives things in the way he does, because without his wholehearted co-operation and understanding no rural development scheme can really succeed.

The general shortcomings of many of the government irrigation schemes in the White Nile can only in part be put down to the failure of peasants to seize apparent opportunities for increased cash income. Peasants are rational, even if illiterate, and react in a way that seems right to them, given their own viewpoint. Much of the blame must be placed before management and government. Incompetent and uninterested management with little real commitment to a scheme is a frequent complaint. This is reflected in shortages, poor agricultural extension work, irregularities in operation, and slowness in paying the peasant for his crop. In the Gummuiya area the administrators are apparently seen as "exploiters" rather than "enablers." Such a lack of trust between management and participant is a recipe for disaster. Part of the trouble also seems to stem from the fact that schemes are introduced from above rather than generated from below. It is as if the government planners were saying: "This will be good for you; these are the aims and aspirations you must have; and this is how it must be accomplished." However, no matter how [audible the scheme may be, if it does not fit in with the peasant's perception of his needs and aspirations then its chances of success are much reduced. The third lesson must be the need for a competently trained and sympathetic management able to obtain the peasant's trust by understanding him and the land upon which the scheme is to be introduced.

Nevertheless, the local management cannot be held responsible for all the administrative shortcomings. National policy frequently dictates to them what they can and cannot do. This may be in terms of directives as to what line of action is to be taken, or it may spring from the national economic situation in which resources are simply not available. Sudan would seem to have undertaken simultaneously too many agricultural development schemes, and as a result has been able neither to produce enough sufficiently trained and motivated managers to service them all properly, nor to build the necessary infrastructure, nor to create sufficient foreign earnings capacity to prevent serious periodic shortages. At the level of national policy it is plain that realistic and attainable national goals in planning need to be devised, taking into consideration the limitations and potential of an area's physical environment, the availability of trained manpower and other resources, and the aspirations of the peasantry, as well as the government's own national aims. Without these prerequisites regional rural development programmes in the Sudan can never be fully successful.

However, within the White Nile itself the aim must be to create, in a regional context, a new equilibrium between the physical environment and man, one in which relationships are self-generating, in which the region can compete on more equal terms with its neighbours, especially the capital region and the Gezira, which constitute the main economic core zone of the Sudan.

The lessons to be learnt from experience in the White Nile may thus be neatly summarized:
1. The need for realistic sustainable policies at the national level.
2. The need for an integrated rather than sectoral approach to a region's development problems.
3. The need for a competent, committed, and sympathetic management for all rural development schemes.
4. The need for an understanding not only of the environment's limitations and of the aims of government, but also of the peasant's aspirations and perceptions. With out this nothing can succeed.

The final conclusion must be that these lessons are applicable not only to the White Nile area but also to the Sudan and all arid lands in the developing world. The same principles apply too to all parts of the developing world, but need particular emphasis in those areas where the environment presents special difficulties for rural development. Arid lands form one major group of such areas.

Contents - Previous - Next