By Roger Anis
As soon as I arrived at Khartoum airport, I thought over everything I had heard and read about the flood that swept Sudan. Yet its effects were barely visible. At first, I thought that the water must have dried up due to the heat, especially since the intense temperature is the first thing that confronts the visitor as soon as they leave the airport. The reality is very different, though. Despite the receding water, the effects of the devastation caused by the floods are evident on the lives of the Sudanese; the least of which is exemplified by tents in open yards in front of now-collapsed homes.
I felt that I was fighting time to get a picture. I wanted to catch the last remaining drops of the flood, to tell the tale of this natural disaster. Yet the problem is no longer the water, but the devastation it left behind. Thousands of Sudanese lost their loved ones or their properties, many remaining without a home and even fewer basic services. It disrupted life for so many who, due to constrained financial resources, do not have the ability to rebuild and lack a clear vision of the future of life in this region.
Floods swept through 16 Sudanese states during September 2020, exceeding levels that had not been seen for over 100 years. According to reports that emerged in the aftermath of the flood, 103 people died and tens of thousands of homes were completely or partially collapsed. More than half a million people have been affected so far. While Sudan normally receives heavy rainfall between June and October every year, official government statistics indicate that the 2020 floods in Sudan were the largest and most damaging yet, surpassing the devastation of the 1946 and 1988 floods, which had previously been considered the worst.
A friend of mine took me on a trip from Khartoum to a village called Al-Jamaier on the outskirts of Omdurman. Gradually, the “zalat”, sudanese dialect for paved asphalt road, disappeared, and the subsequent roads became rougher and rougher as we moved further from the city.
The village’s houses appeared beautifully colorful. But these colors, I soon realized, came from the interior house walls. Most people’s homes had suffered such severe damage that the facades had been wrenched away, exposing the belongings that people had decided to leave behind. Perhaps these things were left because they weren’t a priority as they escaped the floods, or perhaps it was the fatigue, the lack of power, or because they simply had nowhere to store them. About 63 houses in the village were damaged.
Inside one of the destroyed rooms, a bright pink space, a group of men in white Sudanese clothes chat and laughed. “We don’t have any money that would help us rebuild our houses. Either the government must help us or organizations,” says Muhammad Bastawi, one of the residents.
Despite their financial situations and the difficulty of the ordeal, the great generosity and hospitality of the Sudanese endures. There is no room for discussion when you visit a Sudanese family. You must sit down and enjoy “Gabana,” – their Sudanese coffee.
I saw iron beds left out in the open and inside one of the tents, and the owners of a few houses spent their time digging in search of undamaged belongings under the rubble.
Sumaya Muhammad, 55, and her daughter, Mona, entered one of the rooms of their partially collapsed house and searched for some of their most important possessions in preparation for their departure to a temporary home while their house is rebuilt.
“The first time in the year 74 we see a flood that is so destructive, and if it hadn’t been for the Renaissance Dam filling a bit of this year, we would have flooded more,” Hajj Mubarak Al-Obeidi says, while sitting among his friends and family outside their destroyed homes.
Many Sudanese feel that the partial filling of the “Renaissance Dam” in July of this year, which was done without coordination between Egypt and Sudan, may be why the flooding wasn’t more damaging than it was.
However, Kevin Wheeler, an international expert in water resource planning,engineering, and modeling of hydrological and hydraulic systems at the University of Oxford, commented in a report in American Science magazine that “The link between the Renaissance Dam or the High Dam in Egypt and the floods of Sudan is contrary to science and logic, as the amount of water that the dam has seized is less than to have a positive or negative impact.”
According to Wheeler, the scientific phenomenon responsible for this disaster is the phenomenon of the “Indian Ocean bipolar” IOD, or Indian Ocean oscillation, which occurs when the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea are exposed to high temperatures. This rise in temperature in turn increases evaporation rates and the movement of winds and clouds over Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, which can cause harsh rains.
Petrol – open garage in front of petrol stations
On the return leg of our trip, there were endless lines of different vehicles, such as cars, trucks, and motorcycles, lining the length of the road. At first glance, I imagined that these vehicles were waiting by the side of the road as if it were an open garage, but as we drove on, I recognized looks of boredom from the drivers that had been waiting hours to reach the gas station.
A grinding fuel crisis swept Sudan several weeks ago, during which citizens waited for nearly 12 hours to get gasoline, some leaving their cars and returning to their homes on foot until the gasoline arrived at the station and the queue began to move again. The waiting vehicles looked like a snake wrapped around the gas station, surrounded by the entire neighborhood on all sides; the single street leading to the station was no longer sufficient for the queue.
“This crisis was happening from the days of Al-Bashir..and is very much present in Sudan … but we have never seen it from this scene” says a citizen who has been waiting in line for many hours.
A Sudanese friend – to whom I was introduced by an Egyptian friend in Cairo to help me during my trip – called me apologizing for not being able to meet me; she explained that she uses her car very carefully to go to work and does not have enough gasoline..
I understand, of course, how bad the crisis is. I myself have had to cancel some trips to get out of Khartoum and discover other places because of the great difficulty in obtaining gasoline.
Al-Shuqilab Al-Hassania village – Al-Khor
About an hour north of Khartoum lies the village of Al-Shuqailab Al-Hasaniya,one of the villages on the Blue Nile that was completely damaged by the flood. We could not reach the village by car, so we had to walk about a kilometer in order to reach the village.
Nabil, a resident of the village and a member of the service and popular committees that assist in relief operations, points to the upper half of one of the houses and explains to us that two weeks ago, the water had reached the upper half, and access to it had required a fishing boat.
The water has gradually receded now, and agricultural land is clearly visible, but completely submerged by the water.
On one side, a number of fishermen work in their boats, taking shelter under a group of trees.
As the water receded day after day, the fishermen were forced to go back to their land after having sailed their boats for two weeks between the flooded village houses in search of fish.
Flooding represents a source of great harm to a lot of the population, but the period of gradual flood ebb is one of the benefits that fishermen take advantage of, as fish gather in one spot, making them easy to catch faster and in larger numbers.
Out of six thousand people, the population of Al-Shuqilab Al-Hasaniyah, nearly 80 houses collapsed completely and 171 were partially damaged . Now, throughout the village, many residents live in the open air yards of their homes.
However, a few kilometers away from Al-Shuqilab Al-Hasaniyah lies the village of Al-Shuqilab Al-Khor, where, of a population of about three thousand people, 146 houses completely collapsed,230 houses partially collapsed, and a whole camp was built for the affected population in the village.
Khaled Abdul Qadir’s assistant, one of the affected residents, takes me on foot from the shelter camp to his demolished house, which overlooks one of the most beautiful landscapes: Distinctive trees planted in the water.
He looks with sadness and says: “In 3 hours, however, every single thing that drowned was attached to us, we would save any need, even the small dam that we were working on in order to block the water. The water came back and the houses were flooded as well. The first time in my whole life I see the flood with this scene.”
He continues: ” see the scenery, how beautiful it is .. Oh, this destroyed us all … Unfortunately, we cannot move from here, neither with us, money or capabilities, and all that is in our hands in order to prepare for the next year is to raise the Dam because of the water.”
On my way out of the village, I see a mother in colorful and very elegant Sudanese clothing, with her children, walking out from a carriage and entering the rubble of a house. They begin to dig up the scattered belongings to take what belongs to them and what they need.
I call my friend Muhammad, a farmer who owns a plot of agricultural land in a very unique spot at the top edge point of the island of Tutti, where you can see the water of the Blue meet the White Nile. The island has an area of 950 acres. On the phone, he told me that I am lucky because tomorrow will be his first working day on the land to prepare it for planting again after the flood.”
Tutti Island is considered a place to enjoy the Nile and swim for many of Khartoum’s residents. Chairs are stacked on its shore for relaxing, drinking tea and enjoying the view of the Nile, but after the flood it looks as if it has just come out of a war: the stones and colorful chairs are scattered everywhere. Gradually, people have started to return to its beaches, for relaxation and selfies.
A few days later, when I went to visit Muhammad on Tutti Island, the agricultural land was gradually drying up, and he had begun to think about the next crop that he would plant. We walk carefully and feel our steps sink into the muddy ground, planting our feet in the spots that appear dry until we reach a safe spot, where Muhammad used to sit after his work to rest and drink tea.
Muhammad confirms, like all the Sudanese I have met, especially those who have been hurt by the flood, that this is the first time a flood has been so violent; he explains that his 80-year-old grandfather had never seen this scene before.
“Every year at the time of the flood, I have to turn over my work in the land for two months, until the flood ends – even if the land is not completely flooded, because I cannot plant at this time. This situation remains for about two months, I can do any kind of job during this time as long as it get me money and till I can get back to my land,” Muhammad tells me while we drink tea and look at the Nile, enjoying the sight of the sunset and the extreme calm. After, he prepares his hookah, which he would normally treat himself with everyday after work.
Wad Ramli Village
After many calls and attempting to fill the car with gasoline for two days, my friend managed to secure enough gasoline to go to Wad Ramli village.
About 75 km north of Khartoum, Wadramli village, one of the villages most affected by the flood, is located on the Nile River after the confluence of the Blue and White Nile.
The village partially sank in 2019, but this year it sank completely. On the highway, there is a camp where the afflicted people of the village now live, and the more I moved through the village, the more I saw traces of destruction. In many villages, the residents rebuild their homes gradually. Yet in the village of Wad Ramli, many residents have decided to move from the village to an area further from the Nile, the events of this and last year pushing them to make the decision to leave.
Unlike many residents of the village, Naji (55 years old), who works as a driver, sits next to a demolished house with a demolished tent and a bus whose wheels are planted in dry mud. He says: “I am impossible to move from here, no matter what … I am like fish and the land is the water for me, I would die if I move from here.”
Naji proudly challenges the circumstances, explaining that his connection to his location is greater than his ability to see the scale of the disaster or what may happen in the future from the recurrence of the flood and the demolition of the homes that are being rebuilt.
The village gave me the feeling that it was completely deserted and in a state of total silence. But between every house or two appeared a number of people transporting things or a microbus passing through at a very slow pace in the middle of the unpaved muddy ground to transport the residents or their belongings.
I go to the end of the village, directly beside the Nile, where I meet Khalafallah Gaballah (50 years old). He sits in the middle of a pile of broken bricks with an ax in his hand to break the remains of the crumbling walls so that he can move the rubble and decide whether to build his house again or to leave.
“If the government worked hard to build a dam of sand to protect us, the water wouldn’t have flooded our homes like this,” Khalaf Allah quietly says.
“Al-Ters ”: the word they use for a dam that is built from big sandbags to prevent water from reaching the villages and homes. It is the lifeline that the Sudanese know at the time of the flood. Because of its importance, some international NGOs contribute sandbags to make “Al-Ters” as part of their basic aid.
Mosquito nets are another one of the most important basic aid items needed by those affected by the floods.
As mosquitoes spread from stagnant water, the nets help to protect against mosquito bites that transmit malaria and other diseases and also allow for healthy and uninterrupted sleep, which is essential in the rescue and protection process.
The villages of Jebal Awleyah
I went on a tour with the Italian Coopi organization, one of the relief organizations in Sudan, to 4 villages in the Jabal Awleyah region, which were completely affected by the flood. We set out to make a preliminary assessment of the losses and to determine the village’s aid requirements so that we could start working on assistance.
This trip, which was scheduled to take place last week, dwas canceled and postponed to this week, due to the call for demonstrations against the government and security concerns
Musa Khalil (36 years old) sits with his family in a tent marked by the Red Cross next to his demolished house. “For me, If I have one room that is strong and withstands the flood. Better than many rooms that fall every year because of the flood, and for that reason, I want to build with concrete and I hope you can help us ” says Mussa talking to one of the Representatives of the organization during the visit.
Between two Niles and thirsty
Floods, or heavy water, are harmful to many people in Sudan. However, the lack of water is also apparent in many places in Sudan. On the way to the village of Mandela, which is inhabited by about 5,000 people, carts stand ready to pull large tin barrels filled with water from a pump to sell in the villages of Mayo neighborhood, one of the poorest areas in Khartoum.
In a neighborhood approximately 25 kilometers from the city of Khartoum, which is surrounded by the White and Blue Nile, there is no water or water infrastructure; like in most villages and even in Khartoum itself, many residents suffer from water cuts for long periods.
As a visitor, one cannot wander inside the villages of the Mayo neighborhood, so a guide was necessary.Youssef, 35 years old, was my guide inside the Mandela village, since he is one of the residents of the village and knows the streets well.
Every day at six in the morning, Youssef, or a member of his family, visits one of the only two pumps that work out of 28 pumps in the whole village to fill their water needs in buckets and return it to the house. This is the case for most of the villagers, those who cannot afford to buy water from one of the caravans that sell water buckets for 10 Sudanese pounds, equivalent to USD 0.2 cents at the current exchange rate.
“All we want is that any organizations offer help to fix the 26 water pumps that are available but not working , instead of just working on two pumps,” Youssef says.
Water challenges are many; most think that the biggest water challenge is the lack of it, but here, its increasing abundance creates additional obstacles in the form of floods. Floods may result in the same destruction that the lack of water may cause, or, even if differently, the devastation brought on by the misuse of water.
Water is a source of war and peace, death and life, quench and thirst. Water encompasses all of these contradictions, yet embodies goodness and life. Just like what is written in the Holy Qur’an: “and we made from water every living thing.”
Sudan is a country full of bounties, but the wars, conflicts and fascist political regimes that have been going on for decades have prevented this country from harnessing its potential. Despite the passage of the two Niles and the existence of the rainy season in Sudan, the challenges and problems of water and the aspects of life that follow, such as agriculture and water availability , remain significant issues in this beautiful country.
During my two-week stay in Khartoum, the water at my place of residence – situated in one of the most important neighborhoods in Sudan – was cut off for most of my stay. The suffering from the lack of water as well as the appreciation of this blessing are things that many take for granted. It has been an important part of my trip to search for the different colors of the Nile water. I remembered what one of my Sudanese friends said to me in a conversation about the Nile and the water, “I live between two niles and still thirsty.”
Editing and data visualizations by Madison Erdall.