Written for the Guardian Africa Network
“The police bombed us with tear gas. I heard the sounds of bullets being shot. I could never imagine they would shoot to kill.”
Abdel Hakim Nasr recalls a protest in 2007 in the small town of Kidentakar, between the mountains and the Nile in northern Sudan, when government forces opened fire against demonstrators opposing a new dam.
The Kajbar dam would have flooded an estimated 90 villages, displacing nearly 10,000 people and destroying more than 500 archeological sites – some dating back thousands of years.
For many, this crackdown in 2007 was a turning point. Activists argued that it was not just about environmental destruction but also the attempted drowning of Nubian culture by a government intolerant of the non-Arab ethnicities that make up Sudan.
Four people were killed and at least 20 injured in the crackdown. Soon after, the government gave up on plans for the dam. But in 2010 residents were horrified to find machinery surveying their land after a contract worth $705m was awarded to the Chinese company Sinohydro, the world’s largest hydropower contractor.
International Rivers, an environmental group which joined locals in opposing the project, predicts that the Kajbar dam on the Nile’s third cataract will be 20 metres high and create a reservoir of around 110 sq km, leading to the further displacement and resettlement of some 10,000 people.
Many local residents feel that the dam project is a way of destroying Nubian heritage by displacing residents and advancing a policy of “Arabisation” across the country, spearheaded by the president, Omar al-Bashir.
In December 2010, weeks before the referendum where southerners chose secession from Khartoum, he made a speech in the south eastern town of Al Qadarif, saying: “If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution. Sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.”
While non-Arab ethnicities in Darfur have been targeted by violence, earning Bashir an indictment for war crimes from The Hague, activists say the dams project is displacement by other means: environmental destruction.
Adham Nasr, a member of the Anti-Kajbar committee, said that the dams were being used to literally “flood Nubian culture” – an insidious way to exclude and alienate non-Arab ethnicities
The government claims that the dams will bring economic development to the region, but Nasr argues this is impossible “after our heritage and culture drown”.
The case of Wadi Halfa and Merowe
Residents didn’t have to guess at the kind of destruction they faced once the dam was approved – they just had to look back. In 1959 in Wadi Halfa, on Sudan’s northern border with Egypt, the controversial Aswan Dam led to the displacement of 52,000 Nubians on both sides of the state line.
Archeologists guess that the project destroyed many ancient relics. The ancient temple Abu Simbel, built by Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, had to be dismantled and relocated to the banks of what was to become Lake Nasser, to avoid being submerged and lost under the dam’s floods.
More recently, the Merowe dam caused similar controversy – and destruction. The project, which cost £1bn and is Africa’s second-largest hydropower project (after Aswan), displaced a further 50,000 people from fertile stretches of the Nile valley to new desert locations between 2003 and 2005.
The independence of the oil-rich south has resulted in economic hardship in Sudan, and has prompted several ill-conceived projects in search of new resources.
The government announced in early 2013 that it had found considerable gold seams in the northern states, prompting a rise in mining projects, both amateur and commercial. The result? Sites of archeological importance were destroyed and high levels of cyanide and mercury found dumped during the extraction process.
There have also been reports of attacks on date palms – the cash crop for Nubians. Used widely across the region for roofing and as cooking fuel, in the past five years Nubians in Kajbar have been losing their trees in suspicious circumstances. The Anti-Kajbar committee says that about 200,000 trees have been destroyed.
“It’s an attempt to displace Nubians through depriving them of their wealth,” said Tag Alkhatim Abdel Ghafour, a political activist originally from Nubia. “Losing a palm tree is a huge loss as it takes 10–15 years to grow and produce dates.
“Now thousands of trees are being lost in each incident. Political parties should pay attention to these abuses and these brazen attempts to destroy the Nubian culture.”
While armed conflicts and civil wars in other parts of Sudan dominate the news, the Nubian struggle is often ignored. Activists fear that the result could be the loss of one of the oldest and most enduring civilisations on Earth.