Sudan’s two main sources of energy are hydro-energy and thermal generation, with the current capacity of 3.5 gigawatts divided by rates of approximately 50 per cent for each category.2 According to 2018 estimates, only 32 per cent of the Sudanese people enjoy an electricity supply from the national grid, the majority of which is concentrated in urban spaces. This uneven geographical distribution excludes the five federal states of Darfur and the region of South Kordofan, whose metropolitan areas are supplied by local networks that operate for an average of six hours per day.3 These are the same sites that experience frequent conflict – a situation that has largely been shaped by historical developmental inequality.
Figure 1: Sudan’s electricity network, made up of medium-voltage (blue) and high-voltage (green) transmission lines, according to the current state-level of governance
a) Colonialism and developmental inequality
Sudan is marked by severe developmental disparity, connected to the country’s significant cultural diversity, which has been present since the colonial era. That diversity gave rise to the separation of northern Sudan and the country’s southern regions, including some areas of Darfur, Kordofan, and Blue Nile,4 under the law of ‘closed districts’, which cut off large areas and diverse population groups from the socio-economic development of the rest of the country until 1946, after the end of World War II. In 1955, just prior to the declaration of independence, war erupted between northern and southern Sudan. Country-wide developmental disparity and the northern monopoly of power were some of the most important factors behind this conflict.
The colonial policies did not stop after independence: conflict continued and evolved from limiting government participation towards taking on an explicitly religious character following the first military coup in 1958.5 Indeed, this colonial policy continued, reaching its pinnacle under the military government that ruled from 1989 to 2010 (which called itself the ‘salvation government’). During this period, the country’s military rulers made what is locally known as the ‘Hamdi Triangle’, comprising areas within Dunqulah, al-Abyad and Sennar, the core of its developmental policy. These policies resulted in the concentration of development in a geographically limited area that, on the one hand, is culturally homogenous, and, on the other hand, facilitates the formation of an Arab/Islamic alliance that was intended to provide the core of a homogeneous state capable of operating effectively even after geographical divisions. Thus, these policies provided an overt ideological cover for the state on the basis of developmental marginalization, while cultural and religious exclusion divided Sudan.6 During this period, energy was one of the most important central services provided by the state, and was thus inherently political: it served to perpetuate the power of the country’s military rulers.
This brief historical context is key to investigating Sudan’s electricity supply, as demonstrated in Figure 1.
Sudan’s hydrological dam projects are another colonial legacy that continues to heavily impact the energy sector. A quick glance at the history of dam construction shows that it was linked to British-Egyptian colonialism in Sudan. For example, studies of the Second Cataract of the Nile began in 1897: that is, before British colonists entered Khartoum. This demonstrates the central position of control over the Nile waters in the colonial power’s strategy. From the initial phase of colonialism preparatory studies of the waterfall were undertaken, and in 1904 a detailed strategy was developed. These studies were carried out in accordance with the colonial priorities at the time, which focused on storing water for the benefit of expanding agriculture in Egypt and then in Sudan, in order to provide agricultural products for the colonizer at a low cost.
Sir William Garstin, a renowned scientist who studied the hydrology of the Nile and who had a long history of working in India and Egypt, was commissioned to research water storage options on the Nile. Garstin was the first person to conceptualize the construction of dams on Lake Albert (located in Uganda and extending into the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the Jonglei Canal in South Sudan. Garstin pointed to the need to build a dam on Lake Tana in Ethiopia, as well as a dam on the Atbarah River in Sudan, to regulate the flow of the Nile’s water. He also highlighted the possibility of benefiting from the lands between the Blue and White Nile through the Gezira Scheme in Sudan. In order to achieve this, Garstin proposed building the Sennar Reservoir in Sudan. 1904 saw the publication of Garstin’s report which contained various proposals, including initiating projects in Egypt.7 It is thus clear that storing water for the benefit of Egypt was one of the motives of the British colonial project in Sudan.
The colonial project of agricultural expansion in Egypt relied on preserving water and protecting Egypt from floods, particularly following the floods of 1945–1946.8 This was exemplified in the 1946 report on the future maintenance of the Nile, which contained a detailed discussion of the question of the storage of the Nile waters through reservoirs. Moreover, a 1953 report entitled ‘Control of the Nile Waters’, and the 1954 report by H. A. Morris, who was the Sudanese government’s adviser on irrigation,9 briefly alluded to potential and expected energy production from the Nile. Similarly, the official documents of the Sudanese Dams Implementation Unit make clear that the colonial enterprise had, since the 1940s, drawn up plans to preserve water for the benefit of Egypt, and that the strategy had changed from building the Merowe Dam in Sudan to establishing the High Dam as a means of securing its presence within Egyptian territory.10 The shift in the aim behind constructing dams away from preserving water for the benefit of Egypt to only energy production began to clearly crystallize after the World Bank report of 1983, which detailed the possibilities of utilizing the proposed dams for energy production.11 This is what the ‘salvation government’12 (1989–2019) relied on in its studies thereafter, when it shifted all of its projects towards a sole focus on energy production.
The overall vision for maximum exploitation of the Nile’s waters was developed according to the colonizer’s priorities at the time, which were to store water in order to ensure agricultural expansion in Egypt, after the failure of all previously adopted measures.13 Nevertheless, the projects that have more recently been proposed by different national governments, and specifically those related to dams under al-Bashir’s rule (1989–2019), do not greatly differ from the colonial vision that was put forward in Garstin’s report.
The main transformation in these plans that took place in the second half of the twentieth century was a change in the declared primary aim of exploitation of the Nile’s waters from water storage for the purposes of agricultural expansion (to benefit Egypt) to dam construction to produce energy, and thereby achieve development objectives. This camouflages old colonial projects under a mask of development which carries promises of energy production. However, these promises were to remain unfulfilled, both in theory and in the face of reality and practical experience.
In its first stage, the period of al-Bashir’s rule (1989–2019) was associated with isolationism and economic blockade, which drastically reduced the possibilities for expanding services. Soon after, in the early 2000s, oil was discovered in Sudan and, at the same time, a political settlement was signed with the largest movements and political parties. Together, these developments provided an economic surplus which was reflected in the provision of various services, notably in the energy sector. Nevertheless, this period was not without political challenges, including in regard to managing the post-settlement transitional phase. At the time, the government’s priority was the survival of al-Bashir’s rule, and by extension, the system of political Islam in Sudan. This was reflected in the government’s energy-related policies, which played a political role.
This governmental strategy of survival was evident in al-Bashir’s government’s attempt to mobilize community networks for political purposes at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This initiative, which was one of the biggest political projects ever seen in Sudan, sought to transform energy production and distribution operations in the center of the country, i.e., the Hamdi Triangle. By expanding the electricity supply network serving the residential sector in this area, the government aimed to garner political support. As part of this initiative, the Merowe Dam was marketed as a saviour that would guide Sudan away from darkness towards light and development. Al-Bashir illustrated this in his speech inaugurating the dam: ‘The Merowe Dam is the project of the century, the project of the beginning of the end of poverty, and the project of the great launch of the Greater Sudanese state.’14
Al-Bashir’s government presented the Merowe Dam as a major development project. Indeed, al-Bashir himself attempted to market the project at the opening ceremony as a response to the 2009 International Criminal Court’s memorandum. He declared in the same dam inauguration speech: ‘They will issue their decision tomorrow, and after that they will issue a second and third decision, and people will not pay attention to them; they will be preoccupied with decisions and we will continue to develop.’15 At the time, the slogan of al-Bashir’s supporters was ‘the dam is the response’.16 However, the fog of developmental discourse was soon cleared away as the reality of increasing electricity cuts and the rising costs of electricity itself became clear.
As the Sudanese government focused its construction and marketing operations on pro-government companies, construction costs rose, a result of increasing corruption and nepotism, and a lack of oversight. This resulted in an exorbitant debt – approximately $3 billion – related to the construction of the Merowe Dam, even as the dam’s ability to produce electrical energy actually decreased compared to the initial promises: during its opening, it was proclaimed that the dam would produce 1,250 megawatts; however, its actual capacity dropped to less than 600 megawatts.17
The lack of transparency surrounding the dam project was a crucial factor in increasing its environmental costs. The government assigned the engineering aspects of the work to Lahmeyer International, a German company which had been convicted in corruption cases related to water projects in the Lesotho Highlands in southern Africa,18 as a consequence of which the World Bank had discontinued dealings with Lahmeyer for seven years. In Sudan Lahmeyer received funds from parties that had rarely considered transparency a priority. Lahmeyer continued operating as an engineering consultant for other dam projects, even expanding its work under the period of ‘salvation rule’.19 The construction of the Merowe Dam, under Lahmeyer’s guidance, involved violations related to environmental studies – such studies were not approved for the dam until 2007. A report on the environmental situation in Sudan, which was issued after the protracted armed conflict between 1983 and 2005, made clear that the government did not adhere to its own legal standards when approving studies of environmental impact.20 This report described how studies that were presented to Sudan’s competent authorities were not approved as they lacked basic components relating to integrity. This placed pressure on the financiers to stop the flow of funding to the related projects. As a result, the government announced a ministerial change that removed the minister and all departments involved in approving environmental impact reports. These reports were only approved almost a week after the appointment of new departments replacing those that were removed. This demonstrates that the Merowe Dam was considered to be of extreme importance. Furthermore, it demonstrates the lack of attention to the environmental and social costs of building dams, such as increased evaporation rates. Indeed, Merowe Dam’s21 evaporation rates are as high as approximately 1.5 billion cubic metres of water. This is in addition to the general increase in the number of artificial lakes in Sudan, which clearly impacts the production rates of staple crops and orchards in areas north of the Merowe Dam. This has also contributed to the displacement of tens of thousands of affected people, and the loss of their means of livelihood.22
A few years later, in 2013, it was announced that an operation to increase the height of the Roseires Dam had been completed. This dam is located in Blue Nile state, approximately 550 km southeast of Khartoum. After that, in 2017, the Upper Atbara and Setit Dams, in the states of Kassala and El-Gadarif, about 460 km east of Khartoum, were completed. Theoretically, these two dams produce 280 and 320 megawatts, respectively. Various projects in Sudan have been built using loans from Gulf and Chinese state funds. However, many specialists have questioned the usefulness of Chinese and Gulf financing for hydro-energy projects. In regard to China, it is argued that it provides Sudan with loans in return for its government-owned companies being commissioned to construct dams in the country. In regard to the Gulf countries, on the other hand, it is argued that they provide loans in exchange for fertile land, as a means of addressing their own food security issues.23
Loan-based financing is one of the major problems facing energy production projects, especially dams. Instead of mobilizing countries’ own resources by taking advantage of financing through progressive taxation, the creation of public shareholder companies, and the provision of opportunities for the affected population in general to contribute to projects and solutions that guarantee broad participation and benefits, these projects are financed by loans that not only reduce national sovereignty in relation to strategic projects, but also increase the debt burden.
Projects such as the Merowe Dam, the heightening of the Roseires Reservoir, and the construction of the Upper Atbara and Setit Dams, offer clear examples of these dynamics related to loans. Chinese companies obtained construction contracts relating to these projects, while Saudi Arabia acquired more than 1 million acres (404,700 hectares) of Sudanese land for a period of 99 years. Saudi Arabia’s land acquisition equals the total area of the new Upper Atbara project, which is located on fertile lands that Saudi Arabia wishes to exploit as part of a project to provide food security for itself.24 The residents of this area were forcibly displaced from their lands, receiving inequitable compensation: those who owned less than 10 agricultural acres (approximately 40,468 square metres) were compensated with a residential plot of 300 square metres, and those who owned more than 10 acres were compensated with two residential plots with a total area of 600 square metres.25 Thus, in addition to approximately 700,000 citizens being forcibly displaced from their homes, the population in this area lost their agricultural lands, and shepherds lost the natural grazing paths utilized by more than 7 million head of livestock.26
The energy return from these hydro projects is low in comparison to their exorbitant economic, social and environmental costs. These projects have exacerbated development inequality as they have involved a large section of the population losing its traditional means of livelihood. At the same time, the areas closest to these dams, such as the localities of El Buhaira and El ‘Azaza near the Roseires Reservoir, and most of the villages in the banks of the Atbara River, have neither electricity nor regular access to water. These hydro-energy projects thus create spaces of sacrifice for the benefit of ‘development’ and capitalist accumulation in other spaces. This helps reproduce developmental disparity, deepens historical inequality and further increases conflict in various degrees and forms.
b) Hasty solutions
In addition to denying more than 60 per cent of the Sudanese people access to the national grid, the relatively large annual consumption rates (averaging 10 per cent) worsened the national supply gap. As a result, the energy sector was under pressure to provide more electrical capacity. These pressures were addressed through the construction of new thermal power plants, which are heavily reliant on imported fuels: more than 1,500 thermal megawatts were added between 2008 and 2019. In 2017, the cost spent on fuel was estimated at $1.3 billion, with the government’s support for the sector thus reaching 15 per cent of state expenditure.27 These plants cause significant emissions, equalling about 6.25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The speed and relatively low initial cost with which these new thermal plants added to national electricity capacity has tended to obscure the significant operational challenges facing the country, which lost more than 75 per cent of its oil reserves and their associated profits following the secession of South Sudan in 2011. This event rendered Sudan largely dependent on imported fuel, as well as being exposed to unstable exchange rates and accelerating inflation rates. In addition to increasing electricity prices, the expansion of thermal production does not take into consideration the negative impact of this form of production, which causes a significant increase in the emission of greenhouse gases.
Despite the presence of these thermal projects, hydro-generation options have remained at the heart of future plans for electricity supply in Sudan. The salvation regime28 has repeatedly expressed its intention to construct a group of large dams on the Nile River north of Khartoum, in the areas of Dal, Kajbar, and Al Sheraik, located on the second, third and fifth cataracts in the north of Sudan. They would have a total combined operating capacity of 990 megawatts. These dams would be in addition to various other projects in Daqash, Mukrat, Sheri, and Sablouka.29 However, as a result of the widespread rejection of the local populations in these areas, these projects face challenges. In the view of these populations, these projects will not be useful and will flood most of the residential, agricultural, and archaeological spaces from north Khartoum to Old Halfa. The local populations are also challenging these projects on the basis that they require high costs but will provide small returns. The endeavour of marketing hydro-energy projects as a solution collides with the reality of the construction of the Renaissance Dam, which will change the nature of the Nile and help stabilize water flow throughout the year. Such a development will not only render these projects technically useless; they also impose implementation challenges that make their implementation unrealistic.
In sum, all of these factors render the electricity sector plan, which aims to achieve 80 per cent electricity supply by 2031, a very ambitious goal.30 In addition to the gap in the available capacity, the significant cost of extending transmission and distribution networks means that a large segment of the population are currently left in the dark. As noted in Figure 1, electricity supply lines are concentrated in the centre and north of the country, which is the historical centre of economic and political power in Sudan.
There are some common features between Sudan and some sub-Saharan African countries in terms of a decline in electrification rates and population density, and the fact that these countries have not succeeded in creating thriving markets and industries from energy alternatives. However, unlike those countries, Sudan’s situation is in part the result of the international isolation imposed on the previous regime due to US sanctions. For example, compared to Tanzania,31 which has 109 insulated solar plants, with a total capacity of 158 megawatts, Sudan only has one plant, with a capacity of no more than 5 megawatts. The first solar initiative was launched in Sudan in 2014, involving piloting of the solar home systems model whereby individual homes are provided with solar systems in instalments, in cooperation with local banks. The initiative first targeted 100 users with a capacity of 100 watts per user (the aim is to reach a total capacity of 110 megawatts by 2031).32 According to the latest report on this initiative, the number of homes benefiting from the service reached 1,500 in 2018.33
It was only in 2020 that Sudan’s first solar plant was established, in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur State and one of the most important cities in the Darfur region.34 This plant has a capacity of 5 megawatts. A twin plant in the city of El Daein in Darfur encountered various obstacles that have so far prevented its completion, including issues related to funding, delays in receiving materials and equipment, and some cases of equipment theft. The two plants were financed by the Sudanese Hydro Generation and Renewable Energy Company (SHG&REC) and are implemented by a local private company called Top Gear.35
While the crisis currently affecting the electricity sector can be traced back to the al-Bashir era, and its corruption, the post-revolution transitional government of 2018 directly and indirectly aggravated it. The neoliberal doctrine of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictated all macro-economic reforms implemented by the transitional government. Abdalla Hamdok, the Prime Minister who has previously worked in the United Nations, did not attempt to resist this neoliberal tide, even arguing that these reforms were prerequisites for debt relief and for obtaining new loans and subsidies.36 Furthermore, floating the Sudanese pound and lifting subsidies on basic commodities led to the value of the pound plummeting against the official dollar: today, it stands at 570 pounds to the dollar, in comparison to 55 pounds to the dollar in January 2021. The floating of the pound also led to a massive increase in fuel prices, from 100 pounds per gallon to 2,500 pounds per gallon.37
The direct ways in which the transitional government destabilized the electricity supply are also rooted in these neoliberal economic reforms, which directly targeted the energy sector. The implementation of these reforms, which came at a critical time, was subject to a great degree of coordination and planning. The sector’s failure in this matter rendered users the victims of unjust reform recommendations and their poor implementation. The situation then worsened after the coup d’état of 25 October 2021, in response to which all foreign aid was suspended. As a result, the state treasury is now under increasing pressure and has accelerated the implementation of the package of flawed reforms.