11- Ecology and human rights

Sudan's major environmental problems are:

  • destruction of wildlife (through war as well as hunting and habitat loss)
  • soil erosion
  • desertification
  • drinkable water supply

In the Wall Street Journal, (14 October 1997), the chairman of oil giant Exxon stated that developing countries ought to avoid environmental controls because otherwise they risk losing foreign investment.


Yet most people in Africa depend directly on the land, on the forests and on the water in streams to meet their needs.

Spills and explosions

A break in the pipe, whether from an attack or everyday wear and tear, poses two immediate hazards: oil spillage and the risk of igniting gas explosions after a rapid pressure drop inside the pipe. To some extent it will be in the company's interests to minimise these, if only to avoid loss of oil and hardware, and every pipeline will have valves and slip-plates built-in at strategic points to shut off lengths of ruptured pipe, in conjunction with pressure and flow monitors.

Running costs

However, because these extras are not one-off installations, but need continuous maintenance, their use can add considerably to the pipeline running costs. Critics say their use is kept to the minimum, and maintenance routines tend to be neglected when profit is the primary factor and environmental regulation is poor. The running costs of a public relations campaign to maintain that all is well are much less than the costs of doing a thorough job of environmental protection, or of mitigating real disasters in distant parts.


Environment Impact Assessment

Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs) are usually carried out on projects like the pipeline, but by their nature they offer no guarantee of safety. They are essentially a way to reduce dangers and ensure that adequate procedures are in place to mitigate damage, but they are only governed by the regulations of the particular country where the work is to be carried out. The criteria of an EIA done in Sudan would not be acceptable in Europe or America, where environmental legislation is at least meaningful and responsive to an informed public opinion with powers to exercise democratic rights.Since the National Islamic Front/National Congress government is actively suppressing freedom of expression of any number of public concerns, and the environment is probably the last thing on its mind, it would be unrealistic to place any faith in official assurances.

Any pipeline, no matter how well-maintained and protected, brings the risk of an oil spillage. In richer countries the route of the pipeline would be chosen with an eye to minimising any possible environmental damage. This is not noticeably a factor in Sudan.

In the event of a spill, high gravity oil like Sudan's waxy crude, often said to be laced with heavy metals, will take far longer to disperse than lighter oils whose main components tend to evaporate.

The oil consortium prefers to draw comparisons with Libyan crude oil, which is freer of heavy metals. Whatever the case, it is unlikely that clean-up efforts will be carried out with any diligence, especially out in the war zone.

Across the Nile

Not far from Khartoum, the pipeline coming up from the Southwest must cross the River Nile before going on towards Port Sudan. Whether buried under the river or suspended over it, at this point the pipeline will be especially vulnerable to both sabotage and accidental harm, and an oil spill into the Nile could have prolonged and devastating consequences. The use of oil barges from Adar Yale also poses serious hazards.

Most of the Sudanese people - as well as their livestock - along the river from Kosti to Wadi Halfa depend on untreated water from the River Nile for their drinking water.

The harm will depend on the amount spilled, how long it takes to detect the spill and stop pumping, and the strength of the river current. Even a small spill could significantly affect the local ecology of the river.

Oil and water

When the crude oil is spilled into running water, its components will behave in different patterns according to their properties under the prevailing conditions.

Most of the crude components are of limited solubility in water, so they will form a floating layer above the water with damaging effects on the river and its inhabitants. The river's flow will cause the layer to spread over a larger area, causing more damage.

Some of the components will vaporise and disperse mixed with air. Concentration of toxic and/or flammable components could have dangerous consequences, especially if a spill happens near ignition sources.

The more viscous and heavy remains may start sinking into the river bed with further and more long-term harmful consequences. Heavy metals may also be extracted by the water, causing further damage. Sulphur compounds may go through reactions resulting in changes to the pH of the water, affecting the marine life.

Rapid response?

On installations in more developed countries, rapid response teams deployed to fix broken pipes might reach a site in an hour. In many of the areas the Sudan pipeline passes through, a full day is a more likely "rapid response" time. Sudan's vast expanses and harsh operating conditions should never be under-estimated. The more time that is lost, the greater the damage.

Massive wastage is expected from hasty, primitive refining methods in Western Sudan and Khartoum.

El Obeid

In 1996, Canada's Arakis Energy Corp - now taken over by Talisman (ex-BP Canada) - started pumping and trucking 10,000 barrels a day from its oil wells in Heglig, south Kordofan, and sending the crude oil to the refinery in El Obeid.

The El Obeid refinery is not a sophisticated one; it is a basic primary distillation unit with only limited facilities for ensuring that products are environmentally acceptable. It is wasteful and inefficient, using in effect 19th century technology of a sort that preceded modern refining methods.

Propaganda and military value

The primary significance of the NIF's efforts to transport the oil to El Obeid by truck and rail - also an inefficient process - seemed at first to be its propaganda value, more than the cash value of the oil. But it should not be forgotten that El Obeid is a major regional military base for the air force and the army of the Sudanese government - and it is a vital staging post for military operations into the Nuba Mountains as well as parts of southern Sudan.

This oil is unlikely to be primarily for civilian use, and more likely to be refined into fuel for military trucks and tanks.

It is also possible that the El Obeid refinery is using one of the refinery products or "cuts" to blend aviation fuel that could be used by government planes flying bombing missions to the Nuba Mountains and parts of the south.

Khartoum - Concorp

The emissions and pollution levels of the private second hand refinery opened by Concorp in Khartoum, on a scale much larger than the one in El Obeid, are equally unlikely to meet international criteria. This plant has reportedly been purchased from a US producer who was forced to dismantle it because it did not meet new environmental standards in the west. The low-grade fuel it is expected to produce is for local vehicles: it would never be acceptable in developed countries.

Hazards and criticism

Although internal criticism of the project is risky, two outspoken Sudanese environmentalists obliged the government to set up a panel to examine possible environmental hazards from the oil project.

Jayli refinery

Dr Assim el Maghrabi of the Sudan Environment Protection Society [an experienced biologist and academic] says that at the 50,000 b/d oil refinery being built at el Jayli, 20km north of Khartoum, six contracted companies are working in complete isolation from each other. "There should be co-ordination between these firms, otherwise the environment of the areas concerned will be affected," he told the Pan-African News Association, and a careful study of possible environmental damage as a result of this work should have been conducted in advance and necessary precautions taken.

"The risk of pollution and environmental degradation as a result of the oil exploitation, transport, refining and use are of colossal proportions."

"A good example of such mismanagement and environmental degradation was that of Nigeria which prompted the poet Ken Saro Wiwa to launch a campaign of protest two years ago that finally led to his execution."

The ecologist criticised the processes the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) is using in the extraction of oil from the oil wells.

"They simply pump water in the oil well and pump out the mixture which is then transported a distance of 160km to the oil collection terminal. The water is separated from the oil and pumped into evaporation ponds. This contaminated water will surely seep back into the underground waters of the rich Nubian Sandstone Basin below."

He said the CNPC had completely ignored the warnings of the Environment Protection Society on the ecological hazards this process would certainly cause. A more desirable process would be to apply air or gas pressure to force oil out of the ground as companies in other parts of the world do.

The ecologist also criticised local oil planners, saying they did not take into consideration that the pipeline would block scores of water streams and valleys, thus affecting livestock, agriculture and wildlife natural habitats and migration routes.

[This is not surprising, since any likely critics were dismissed from the Petroleum Corporation by the NIF. All bodies connected with the oil project are effectively NIF-controlled. Those who remain know very well that any attempt to raise such concerns would result in their being dismissed, at the very least.- SU]The refinery in Jayli, a stone's throw from the River Nile, may contaminate the river water if over-spills occur. The possible uncontrolled dumping of oil waste at this close distance from the river would certainly pose a pollution threat.

A Malaysian company has been assigned to supervise construction work on the oil facilities. But Maghrabi cast doubts on the safety of the entire process, and said the firm was doing its work in the absence of local expertise. "We have lots of qualified cadres who should not have been ignored while approaching such a vital project. We should bear in mind Sudanese scientists' noteworthy contribution to the oil industry in the Gulf states."

Ecologist Dr Mustafa Babiker, after visiting the Heglig oilfields, reported that local people hired as casual labour by the foreign companies "are living in makeshift housing facilities which are uncomfortable and unhealthy."

Dr Babiker, a lecturer at the University of Khartoum's Institute of Environmental Studies, said the employers had not complied with Sudanese labour laws and were denying workers much of their basic rights, for example in medical payments.

In the light of these complaints, the government panel has been given a mandate beyond the immediate question of environmental damage, says its chairperson, Labour Minister Agnes Lokudu. "The panel will also consider the social and economic aspects of the emerging oil industry," and seek the advice of specialists in wildlife, pastures and water. The minister is expected to report the panel's findings to the Council of Ministers.
(Pan African News Agency 1 February 1999)

All these last-minute expressions of social and environmental concerns raise serious questions:

  • Could the oil project really have proceeded this far without having studied these impacts? If so, then how?
  • Why was the Labour Minister appointed to assess oil risks? (Lokudu, a southern Sudanese woman, is likely to be vulnerable to extreme political pressure, and in any case has no expertise in this field.)
  • What about Talisman's impact assessments?
  • Why are inexperienced government appointees repeating the work?

Conflicts of interest and responsibility

The failure of Talisman and the consortium to provide sufficient detail means it is impossible for the public to know how much damage will result if there is an oil spill, and whether the responsible parties would have adequate resources to contain the oil spill and prevent broader environmental and social impacts.

Construction and exploration sub-contractors may be responsible for location-specific impacts. But these contractors are under considerable time pressure - especially with construction or exploration crews working in conflict areas - so there is an implicit conflict of interest which undermines any prospect of effective environmental protection.

If the environmental management plan shifts responsibility for environmental management - including mitigation of damage - from the oil pipeline consortium to the Sudan government, then the government's capacity to fulfil this role must be doubted.

Oil Spill Response Plan / Liability Fund

An oil spill response plan based on a full assessment of the potential damages and risks from oil spills is one of the most basic internationally recognised requirements of any oil development and transport project. There should also be a fund to pay compensation for damages (including environmental damage) in case of an accidental oil spill. Talisman, however, have declined to reveal their plans - assuming they exist - on the grounds that they are too "sensitive".

World Bank comparison

If the project, instead of being privately funded, had been in line with World Bank's requirements, its Environmental Management Plans would have to include the identification and summary of all significant adverse impacts that are anticipated, the description and technical details for each mitigation measure, the assignment of responsibility for carrying out the mitigation measures and the implementation schedule for the mitigation measures.

The World Bank's Indigenous Peoples' policy requires the preparation of an Indigenous Peoples Development Plan in tandem with the preparation of the main investment. Again, in the Sudan's case, there is no sign of a comparable plan.

There has been no meaningful consultation of local people during the Environmental Impact Assessment process. And there are no guarantees that the financial resources generated by the project will be used to improve living conditions in Sudan.

Truth and public relations

Freedom of the press in Sudan is practically non-existent, and cover-ups of serious issues are far more likely than exposure and discussion. It is usually difficult to determine the truth about events in Khartoum, let alone in areas hundreds of kilometres from the capital.


Mohamed Abdel-Sid, the correspondent for Asharq al-Awsat newspaper who was detained in Khartoum in mid-April 1999, had been tortured by security forces and taken to Kober hospital in Khartoum, sources close to his family said on 4 May.

The London-based newspaper said security forces had not released Abdel-Sid despite a report on 29 April from the Sudan News Agency (SUNA) that Abdel Sid and Abdel-Qader Hafiz, correspondent of the Saudi Arabian daily al-Gezira, had been released.

"Abdel-Sid's family and his lawyer have not been able to see him since his arrest last month,'' the paper said.

The two, along with SUNA editor Ms Maha Hassan Ali, were reported to have been detained under the national security law. No charges were announced. (Asharq al-Awsat / Reuters 4 May 1999)

12 - Who's Who