Thousands Flooded Out by Merowe Dam in Sudan

Flooded home at Merowe Dam village.
Flooded home at Merowe Dam village.

The Sudanese government has closed the gates of the Merowe Dam in order to flood out thousands of people who have so far resisted displacement from their villages in the Nile Valley. The affected people are holding out, but desperately need our support. The credibility of the Chinese, German and French companies which are involved in the project is on the line.

With a planned capacity of 1,250 megawatts, the Merowe Dam in Northern Sudan is the largest hydropower project currently under construction in Africa. The dam will more than double Sudan’s electricity generation. It will also displace up to 70,000 people from the fertile Nile Valley to arid desert locations. The project is being built by Chinese, German and French companies, and financed by China Exim Bank and Arab financial institutions.

When I had the chance to visit the project region with my friend Nicholas Hildyard in 2005, I was deeply impressed by the courage, self-confidence and determination of the affected people. “We have lived in the Nile Valley since time immemorial, and have enjoyed peace and prosperity”, one affected farmer told us. “During all this time, the government has never done anything for us. Why does it treat us like enemies now?”

The farmers we met told us that if the dam was indeed in Sudan’s national interest, they were not fundamentally opposed to it. Yet they wanted to have a say in the planning of the project, and wanted to resettle at the banks of the reservoir rather than in the desert. (Our trip report from 2005 presents the concerns of the affected people in more detail.)

Nick and I enjoyed the hospitality of our Sudanese friends, and were even invited to a Sudanese wedding as honorary guests. We promised ourselves that we would do all we could to raise international awareness about the struggle of the affected people, and to support the tireless efforts of LOHAP, a small NGO of dam-affected activists founded by Ali Askouri.

Since 2005, the Merowe Dam has received a lot of international attention. UN human rights rapporteur Miloon Kothari expressed “deep concern” about the human rights violations in the project in August 2007, and called on the involved companies to halt construction activities. Li Ruogu, the president of China Exim Bank, told me in a conversation in December 2006 that he was aware of the controversy over Merowe and would send a team to investigate the problems. We don’t know whether Exim Bank has ever done this. Meanwhile, the German and French companies, Lahmeyer International and Alstom, sat on their hands and supported the Sudanese government throughout the process.

In May 2007, the affected people reached an agreement with the government of Sudan’s Nile State which gave them the right to relocate to settlements along the reservoir. Yet this agreement has never been honored, and the powerful Dam Implementation Unit, which sits directly under the Sudanese president, has waged a relentless campaign to drive the affected people off their lands. The dam authority sent armed militia to suppress local protests at several instances, killing three people and many more in a massacre in April 2006.

During the flood seasons of 2006 and 2007, the dam builders restricted the Nile’s flow so much that the homes of thousands of families were flooded. According to affected people, the authorities decided to close the dam’s gates completely on the Eid holiday of September 30. The rising waters now threaten Sherri Island, a historically important island of 200 square kilometers in the Nile and a center of the resistance against the Merowe Project. The island counts more than 1000 families and is a regional center with schools, a hospital and local council offices.

With tens of thousands of sandbags, the affected people are desperately trying to save their public buildings from flooding. Expecting the current emergency, the committee of dam-affected people has organized relief supplies, temporary buildings and irrigation pumps on higher lands since 2007. But the Sudanese government has closed the region to aid agencies and journalists. It also prevented Sima Samar, another UN rapporteur, from visiting the Merowe area in February 2008. During this time of crisis, the affected people of the Nile Valley need our support.

As the Sudanese government is flooding out its own people like rats, the credibility of China Exim Bank, Alstom, Lahmeyer International and Sinohydro is on the line. They could stop the construction of the project and the flooding until a peaceful solution has been found. We call on the international community, including governments, civil society organizations and the media, to express their urgent concern about the forced eviction of the Merowe-affected people to the Sudanese government and the Chinese, German and French institutions involved in the project.

More information about the Merowe Dam is available at International River’s website. Al Jazeera has covered the massacre against dam-affected people of April 2006, and the beginning submergence of the affected communities in July 2007.

This blog post has also been translated into Chinese.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at