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worldwide wednesdays :: a war of oil and water

a storm is coming
[hey look! i finally gave in and started to spell "worldwide" as one word. i always like the symmetry of the three w's, but i know that it's not really supposed to be spelled that way. ultimately, spelling kate won out over style kate.]

i realised today that i'm in danger of becoming strictly a u.s. political blog, which is certainly not what i ever intended. so to break up the rhythm of ohmygodwhattheactualfuckareyoudoingamerica, i thought i'd focus on something that's even worse than the current election.

we've all heard, nearly every day, about the raging wars in syria, iraq and afghanistan. if you pay attention to the news, you're probably aware of ongoing conflicts in yemen and ukraine as well. and although you might not think of them as "wars" in the same sense, it's widely known that mexico and columbia are engaged in a vicious struggle with drug cartels/ organised crime. those conflicts have been the cause of tens of thousands of deaths in the last year and they're widely publicized because they are the deadliest in the world, but the sad fact is that there are wars of varying intensities happening everywhere. they may be smaller now, but one thing that history teaches us is that small conflicts can flare up into something much worse with little warning [or that tensions can flare up again, when you think that they've been quelled]. so in the interests of being profoundly depressed about the state of the world and to feed our collective cassandra complex, i thought i would give you a brief look at what i think is possibly the most dangerous and under-reported conflict area in the world: sudan and south sudan

south sudan is the world's newest country, having chosen overwhelmingly to separate from their northern neighbours in 2011. unfortunately, while this was seen as a way to resolve historical tensions [dating from days when the english and egyptians were in control of both contemporary countries], it hasn't worked out very well for either side.

before the break-up
until the split, sudan's was one of the fastest growing economies in africa, which was shocking given the numerous [and often coincidental] civil wars. however, when south sudan packed their bags, their luggage included most of the country's lucrative oil fields and other natural resources like iron ore, gold, silver, diamonds, tungsten and more. needless to say, this was like a sledgehammer to the gut of the sudanese economy and relations have been tense between the two nations ever since. there have been squabbles about the exact location of the border and two states still in sudan [south kordofan and blue nile] are fighting for their own independence.

internally, sudan has around three million displaced persons, hundreds of thousands of them in refugee camps. but they have also been a destination for refugees from adjacent countries, like those fleeing boko haram in niger and chad, and those fleeing conflicts in the  horn of africa [the ones that brought us the epidemic of piracy a couple of years ago].

judging from their share of the national goods, you'd think that south sudan would be in decent shape, but that is absolutely not the case. despite the fact that the gdp per person is relatively high, the vast majority of south sudanese survive on less than a dollar a day and their health indicators are among the worst in the world. and, having successfully fought for their independence from the arab and muslim north, south sudan's two largest ethnic groups, the dinka and the nuer, descended into ethnic violence almost immediately. the country's military is split between the two groups and, while the leaders of the two factions have tried to reconcile, both have accused the other of acting in bad faith.

this conflict should be a huge concern for the rest of the world, because, as it gets fired up, it will be almost certainly flood surrounding countries like the waters of the nile river. control over sections of the nile is an issue for both countries. sudan is highly susceptible to droughts and, since they no longer have the oil reserves they once did, they are relying more and more on hydroelectric power. this is, of course, a much cleaner option, but hydroelectric projects can have unexpected impacts on the surrounding ecosystem.

[the story continues after the break, however i will take this opportunity to warn you that there are also a couple of images that some might find disturbing]



south sudan, being further up river, doesn't necessarily have a lot to worry about, but egypt, sudan's northern neighbour and former ruler, are a bit more concerned. they've estimated that they could significantly increase egypt's agricultural output by tinkering with the large wetlands around the nile in south sudan. and with an increasing number of vulnerable people due to their own internal conflicts, food supply is a very big deal to the egyptians. so whatever happens, the most powerful state in the region will want to have a say in how things are settled.

china is very concerned that the flow of oil be stable, given that they are the major consumer of south sudanese oil, which means that you have one of the world's economic superpowers with a vested interest in ending the conflict in the south and backing the south against the north.

south sudan
happening just to the east of all this is the crisis in somalia. you might remember this from the 80s, 90s, or early 2000s and, because you haven't heard of it recently, you might have thought that it was resolved, or at least that there was a fragile peace. there is not. somalia is currently in its fifth year of extreme drought and there are ongoing firefights with the extremist group al-shabaab. hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced within the country. hundreds of thousands more are refugees in nearby countries.

and, as i alluded to earlier, to the west of the two sudans, there is a pitched battle against the terrorist group boko haram that stretches all the way to nigeria. that war constitutes one of the deadliest ongoing conflicts in the world [only syria, iraq and afghanistan have seen more casualties], and it spreads across nigeria, cameroon, niger and chad, displacing thousands of people, many of whom have no choice but to run to increasingly unstable sudan.

now, this is all very doom and gloom, and there's nothing to say that conflict in one area is going to automatically trigger conflicts in neighbouring areas, like some kind of nuclear dominoes. after all, most of these conflicts have gone on for years in close proximity and the region hasn't imploded. but every year, things get a little more precarious.

there is still, as we saw above, tension between sudan and south sudan. the increasing calls for independence from provinces in sudan is likely to put more strain on the relationship. a conflict between a muslim and a christian nation is going to tempt other countries to side with one or the other, which is further complicated by the fact that the [northern] sudanese government has been accused of shipping arms to islamic state fighters in libya. and probably the two most powerful and influential countries in the region are handicapped in their ability to help: egypt is trying to prevent its own civil war and kenya has had increasing problems with al-shabaab itself. take those two out of the equation and you have a difficult time finding anyone who can act as the proverbial cooler head.

south sudan
the threats of drought and desertification, already a huge problem in somalia, are expanding to sudan and are likely to threaten more people as time goes on. the nile is the only major waterway in the northeast and control over it will grow ever more important. and south sudan, with its oil reserves, is surrounded by impoverished non-oil-producing nations that would welcome the revenue that resource could bring. refugees are increasing in number and running out of places to go, or simply being pushed from one country to another, causing more conflicts between different tribes/ races.

a little over a hundred years ago, world war i, the so-called "war to end all wars" was almost inadvertently kick-started by an assassination by a nationalist group. in april 1994, in an attack whose perpetrators are still unidentified, a plane carrying the presidents of rwanda and burundi was shot down and cracked open a pandora's box of ethnic tensions that led to genocide. both of those assassinations were the result of the kind of simmering tension that's present now in and around sudan. and once again, there is a real possibility that one act of political defiance could mushroom into a cataclysm before most people have even had a chance to figure out what's happening.

think of the mass casualties and the number of refugees created by the collapse of the near east in the last decade. now picture what could happen if such an implosion were to occur across the belt of a massive continent with millions more people, a much more complicated cultural mosaic, where people are already living on the brink of starvation.

eastern africa hovers perennially on the brink, one gunshot away from disaster, and yet it flies below the radar because it is, and always has been, an unknown to the rest of the world. by comparison, tensions and threats in afghanistan and iraq were relatively well understood [even if the knowledge wasn't used] fifteen years ago. for once, it would be nice to think that people in positions of power were trying to stay ahead of the catastrophic curve by making a concerted effort to understand what is going on. how likely is that to happen? that's the thought i have to leave you with tonight.

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