For Sudan, a green economy would bring not only climate security but also sustainable peace and economic prosperity.

  • Kholood KhairManaging partner of Insight Strategy Partners (ISP), a policy think-and-do tank based in Khartoum, Sudan.

4 Oct 2020

A man walks beside a flooded road in the town of Shaqilab, about 24km (15 miles) southwest of the capital, Khartoum, Sudan, on August 31, 2020 [AP Photo/Marwan Ali]
A man walks beside a flooded road in the town of Shaqilab, about 24km (15 miles) southwest of the capital, Khartoum, Sudan, on August 31, 2020 [AP Photo/Marwan Ali]

Today, just more than a year after the removal of President Omar al-Bashir’s regime and the formation of a transitional government, Sudan is a country united under the rallying cry, “we will build it”. This, coupled with the pandemic’s reset of the global economy, presents a valuable opportunity for Sudan to invest in sustainable development and build a green economy based on good governance of the country’s abundant natural resources. Due to a lack of robust planning, however, the efforts to build a new Sudan still appear wedded to the petroleum-based economies of its Gulf neighbours.

Unlike its Gulf neighbours, Sudan does not have oil reserves vast enough to support its economy. Moreover, it does not have the necessary funds to ensure oil security, which means its petroleum industry is at the mercy of international oil companies at all times. In September, for example, Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh, together with its Chinese and Malaysian partners, announced their decision to withdraw from Sudan’s oil fields and initiated arbitration proceedings against the government of Sudan to recover unpaid dues amounting to $430m. These charges were amassed by, but not requested from, the previous regime, demonstrating the big-oil’s preference to do business with authoritarian regimes.

Despite all this, Sudan seems unwilling or unable to abandon carbon-heavy development strategies that were pursued by its oil-rich Gulf neighbours. Sudan’s apotheosis of desert cities like Dubai, which was, after all, partly built through the efforts of the Sudanese diaspora, not only obfuscates alternative energy opportunities within Sudan but also helps carry the lack of transformative imagination that defined the previous regime into the new era.

In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the devastating consequences of climate change, clearly demonstrated that petroleum-based economic models are not sustainable in the long run. This year, even the oil giant BT joined the call for a global shift towards greener energy sources. General Electric also started to divest from coal and other non-renewable energy sources.

Sudan is very well positioned to take advantage of this global shift towards green energy by using its many natural resources to build a green economy. The transitional government’s current moves towards dismantling the systems of al-Bashir-era patronage would also be well complemented by economic policies aimed at regulating the energy market, as the industry has historically been a source of corruption and rent-seeking by political elites.

Today, Sudan has the opportunity to build. But to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, it must build forward and jettison out-dated and polluting growth strategies that make it dependent on the goodwill of its neighbours.

Sudan’s increasing vulnerability to climate change

The stakes are already high: Sudan is in the unenviable position of being one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, ranking 174 out of 181 countries according to a vulnerability index by the University of Notre Dame.

As well as being a key driver of war in Darfur and other conflict-affected areas across the country, climate change has had more immediate impacts.

This year’s record-breaking floods demonstrated Sudan’s growing and undeniable vulnerability to climate change for devastating effects. Since July, flooding in 17 out of Sudan’s 18 states affected some 650,000, with bacteria-ridden stagnant floodwaters causing acute diseases among survivors even after the issuing of a state of emergency.

Sudan has always experienced seasonal rains, but climate change is making the rains more intense and unpredictable. Currently, the country appears to be almost completely unprepared to face the adverse effects of climate change. Though some environmental policies do exist, the beleaguered transitional government neither instituted the policy mechanisms nor secured the financing necessary to sufficiently pre-empt or effectively respond to these floods and other climate-related emergencies.

As has been the case with previous floods, with the government unable to offer much help or guidance, Nafeer, a movement based on the Sudanese social tradition of community mobilisation of the same name, has been the primary responder to this year’s floods. With devastating floods becoming an annual event, the government can no longer afford to be caught unaware, and rely on social mobilisation and international humanitarian aid, in the face of natural disasters.

An opportunity to build a greener future

This year’s epic floods, coupled with locust infestations, the COVID-19 pandemic, increased food insecurity, and a never-ending economic crisis, presented Sudan’s fledgeling transitional government with an almost biblical set of challenges.

The COVID-19 lockdown that was imposed over the summer crippled the economy, which was already suffering from the impact of international sanctions, and derailed any plans to reverse the downward spiral of the Sudanese pound.

Sudan’s possible rescission from the US’s state sponsors of terror list, seen by many as the panacea for all economic ills, has also failed to materialise due to the Sudanese government’s refusal to normalise its relations with Israel – a rather cynical quid pro quo proposal by Washington and its Gulf allies.

Climate change, meanwhile, continues to pose a growing threat to the country’s struggling economy.

Despite all this, the transition period Sudan is currently going through offers the country a unique opportunity to effectively respond to this myriad of challenges. The transitional government, as it guides the country into a new era, can stop flogging a defunct model of economic growth, that will not only fail to prevent but exacerbate the effects of climate change on the country, and meaningfully explore new climate change-ready sustainable growth modalities.

Sudan has a golden window of opportunity for change, and it must harness it to begin seriously committing to policies that reflect changing environmental and economic needs. Though, comparatively, Sudan is not a big polluter, remaining on its current path and continuing to tie its growth to carbon-heavy resources will see it pay a high human and economic cost.

If Sudan insists on remaining a carbon-intensive economy, it will also risk becoming a global dumping ground for old, polluting technologies. There are signs carbon-based industries are already taking steps to dump their unwanted technologies and produce on countries with limited environmental regulations. In August, the oil industry was accused of demanding a trade deal that would weaken Kenya’s regulations on plastics and on imports of American rubbish. Other carbon-heavy industries are likely to pursue similar strategies to survive in the face of plummeting profits and a climate emergency that is slowly turning the world against them. For example, the rapid pace of change in electric vehicle technology, coupled with ambitious policies to phase out internal combustion engine cars in some countries, means it is not hard to imagine companies looking to extend the life cycles of older polluting models by importing them to countries with weak environmental standards.

Charting a green growth model for Sudan

Making use of its solar, hydro, and wind energy potential and charting its own green growth trajectory could see Sudan leapfrog the faltering economic models of its closest neighbours. By recognising its natural resource strengths, rather than pursuing an ill-fitting growth model, Sudan can become a global leader and net exporter in renewables. Moreover, through climate-smart agriculture, it can easily become the food basket of the region, secure consumables for its people and even help feed its neighbours. All this would help the country become more stable, and earn the foreign exchange it desperately needs to heal its economy.

Sudan is due to release its first-ever State of the Environment and Outlook Report later this month. This will be the first comprehensive assessment of Sudan’s environment and natural resource wealth, cataloguing the country’s land, water, biodiversity and natural resources as well as the governance structures currently in place to manage them. According to the report’s lead author, Dr Osman Ali, the report “comes at a time of greater political opportunity to back up the recommendations” and highlights the opportunities that embracing these natural resources through green policy will have in preventing disasters, of the environmental and economic kind.

A Sudanese Green Economic Vision

For Sudan, a green economy would bring not only climate security but also sustainable peace and economic prosperity.

The recent Juba Peace Talks, now contain clauses that commit all parties to climate change and environmental considerations. Nisreen Elsaim, part of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change says this was hard-won “and even with these stipulations, there is no guarantee that environmental concerns will be taken seriously.”

If the Sudanese leadership commits unambiguously and transparently to a green economic agenda, it will send a clear message of intent to the international community and attract new types of partnerships and organisational and investment support to make such a transformation possible.

Though Sudan’s governance, institutional, and economic challenges are many and international funding for climate change is under pressure due to the pandemic, there are international avenues to gain support for these initiatives.

The platform for this could be the next UN Climate Negotiations (COP26), due to take place in December 2021, where countries are expected to submit their updated plans – or Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – to meet the goals set in the Paris Agreement. Sudan should use its NDC to set out a new green economic vision and demand support from the international community to help deliver it.

Sudan has recently brought down a 30-year dictatorship, and though the country is still facing multiple political and economic barriers on its path to democracy, it now has the opportunity to shape its future for the better. Through visionary thinking, effective leadership and ambition, Sudan can become a renewable energy superstate, and build a strong economy while also protecting its population from the worst effects of climate change. The first step to achieve this is to integrate natural resources governance and environmental needs into Sudan’s new governance structure. Sudan can indeed have a green, prosperous future, but the question remains – who will champion this ambitious vision for Sudan?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.