Fighting for Nubia's Rich Culture

Ange Asanzi

“We will never allow any force on the earth to blur our identity and destroy our heritage and nation. Nubians will never play the role of victims, and will never sacrifice for the second time to repeat the tragedy of the Aswan Dam,” says a member of the Nubian Association. 

The Nubian monuments, constructed by Pharaoh Ramesses II (1300 BCE), Nubia.
The Nubian monuments, constructed by Pharaoh Ramesses II (1300 BCE), Nubia
by Neil Weightman

Nubians are a people from northern Sudan and southern Egypt with a long and proud history. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, many Nubians migrated to remote areas along the Nile. In the 1960s, they faced cultural disintegration when their villages were flooded by the Aswan High Dam, which was constructed on the first cataract of the Nile River between 1960 and 1970. 

The Aswan Dam was expected to have significant impact on the economy and culture of Egypt, but the suffering of the displaced Nubians was rarely discussed. It’s estimated that between 100,000 and 120,000 Nubians were forced to resettle; some relocated as far south as Kenya and Uganda. The lives of the communities living downstream from the dam were drastically changed for worse. 

Unfortunately, we seem doomed to repeat history. 

Today the lifeline of Nubians is once again threatened by the proposed Dal and Kajbar dams in Sudan. The Dal and Kajbar will be built on the Nile’s second and third cataracts, respectively. Both dams will displace more than 15,000 people, and the reservoirs will submerge the only remaining fertile land north of Khartoum as well as 500 archaeological sites. According to hydrologist Seif al-Din Haman Abdalla, 3% of the Nile’s annual flow will evaporate each year from the two reservoirs – this at a time when the river’s life-giving waters are needed more than ever. 

The projects also profoundly threaten the cultural and social fabric of the Nubian people. Nubia’s traditional spirits are centered on the Nile: The river is believed to hold the power of life and death. 

Dam Projects Rise from the Dead

Until recently, it seemed that plans to build the Dal and Kajbar dams had been abandoned. But in early November, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir paid a visit to the Saudi king in Riyadh to discuss ways of promoting bilateral relations and cooperation between the two countries. Following the meeting, the two governments signed an agreement to finance the Dal, Kajbar and Shiraik dams in northern Sudan. It appears that Saudi Arabia has committed to invest US$1.7 billion for the construction of these three dams. 

Though the finances are sorted, however, the Sudanese government still has a lot on its plate: Sudan’s Nubian communities refuse to let these projects see light. The Nubian people understand that the benefits of the project would not reach their community. They are prepared to oppose this revived project by all means. 

“The agreement shows a lack of respect toward the citizens of Sudan,” says a statement written by the Sheriak Area Union.  “The dams and all the so-called associated economic benefits are just excuses the government is using to plunder the mineral resources in the region.” Following the statement, the Nubian communities signed a petition against the Dal-Kajbar dams, stating that “we are Sudanese and refuse the construction of dams in northern Sudan, the oldest civilization in the history of humanity.” 

 A History of Resistance

Protest against the Kajbar Dam in Sudan
Protest against the Kajbar Dam in Sudan

This is not the first time the Nubians have fought these projects. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported “fear of another Darfur” if the dams were built. But the government was willing to defend the projects at all costs: When the Nubian community stood up to peacefully protest the Dal and Kajbar that year, four people were killed by government security forces and more than 20 injured. 

In 2011, International Rivers warned Sinohydro (who won a $705 million contract to build the Kajbar Dam) and potential funders about the human rights risks of the Dal-Kajbar dams. That risk is no less present now. Sudan’s president is wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his actions in Darfur. Fearless of his arrest warrants, President Bashir continues his crimes with impunity and will likely not make any concessions when dealing with Nubians.   

We at International Rivers fully support the cause of the Nubians and will continue to advocate against the Dal-Kajbar dams. We have submitted a letter to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC outlining our concerns of Saudi Arabia's support for dam projects in northern Sudan.  We will monitor the project and report any human rights abuses to the responsible United Nations bodies. We will also hold the Sudanese and Saudi Arabia governments accountable for human rights violation or any assaults against the Nubians. 

Saudi Arabia should learn the lesson of earlier human right disasters in Sudan and reconsider its agreement with the state of Sudan. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015