Sudan’s disputed region isn’t oil-rich, it’s water-rich

Almost any media description of Sudan’s disputed Abyei region, with North Sudanese troops took control of today, includes the phrase "oil-rich". (Today’s Morning Brief was an offender.) But FP contributor Becca Hamilton, writing at the Christian Science Monitor, points out that "water-rich" would actually be the more relevant description: First, oil production from Heglig, Bamboo, ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Almost any media description of Sudan's disputed Abyei region, with North Sudanese troops took control of today, includes the phrase "oil-rich". (Today's Morning Brief was an offender.) But FP contributor Becca Hamilton, writing at the Christian Science Monitor, points out that "water-rich" would actually be the more relevant description:

First, oil production from Heglig, Bamboo, and Diffra has declined across the board. From the 76,600 bpd of 2004, the 2009 estimates for the three fields dropped to 28,300 bpd. Meanwhile, production from outside the area increased. By early 2009, “oil-rich” Abyei only accounted for 5 percent of Sudan’s annual production.[...] Given the possibility that Abyei has more usable oil than we currently know or can verify, one may argue there is no harm in continuing to label Abyei as “oil-rich.” But the problem is that as long as oil remains the primary lens through which Abyei stories are packaged, we miss what else is at stake.

Abyei is extraordinarily fertile, and the significance of the River Kiir (in Dinka)/Barh el-Arab (in Arabic) to the sustenance of life here cannot be overstated.

Almost any media description of Sudan’s disputed Abyei region, with North Sudanese troops took control of today, includes the phrase "oil-rich". (Today’s Morning Brief was an offender.) But FP contributor Becca Hamilton, writing at the Christian Science Monitor, points out that "water-rich" would actually be the more relevant description:

First, oil production from Heglig, Bamboo, and Diffra has declined across the board. From the 76,600 bpd of 2004, the 2009 estimates for the three fields dropped to 28,300 bpd. Meanwhile, production from outside the area increased. By early 2009, “oil-rich” Abyei only accounted for 5 percent of Sudan’s annual production.[…] Given the possibility that Abyei has more usable oil than we currently know or can verify, one may argue there is no harm in continuing to label Abyei as “oil-rich.” But the problem is that as long as oil remains the primary lens through which Abyei stories are packaged, we miss what else is at stake.

Abyei is extraordinarily fertile, and the significance of the River Kiir (in Dinka)/Barh el-Arab (in Arabic) to the sustenance of life here cannot be overstated.

This river continues to flow throughout the harsh dry season, meaning it is the only place to graze livestock for many months of the year. Without it, the nomadic population could not survive. Even if it turns out there is untapped commercially-viable oil within Abyei’s boundaries, that still only accounts for one strand of what is going on in Abyei.

At the national political level, oil matters.

For the people who live here – who have never seen any benefits from oil and don’t believe they ever will, the talk of oil just feels like a headache they would rather do without. But if you took oil out of the equation you would still have a very big Abyei problem – primarily because of water, but also because of the political manipulation of local actors, and the legacy of war on inter-ethnic relations. None of these issues are getting the coverage they deserve because of the hyped-up focus on oil.

The overattention to oil supplies relative to water tables and food stockpiles isn’t unique to Sudan. As Lester Brown points out in his recent FP cover story, "All together, more than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling". This fact is increasingly important to understanding where disputed regions will emerge, but it’s going to take a while for the headlines to catch up. 

 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: Sudan

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