Building a New Nation and New Energy in South Sudan

This weekend marked the beginning of an important new chapter of nation-building, with the celebration and formal launch of the world’s newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan.   United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and a host of dignitaries were on hand.  The decades-long civil war with the north ended in 2005, and the World Bank has had an office there since just after that.

I spent several days there two weeks ago, pre-independence, but very much in a moment of great excitement about what the nation the size of the Iberian peninsula with a population of 8 to 9  million could accomplish.

South Sudan will begin life as both a tremendously poor and under-served nation in terms of the services for its people, and a fantastically rich one in terms of resources and potential.  The country has less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of paved road.  At present, conflict with the north’s Khartoum-based government continues over the key oil, gas, and mining provinces of the border region, where much of the international press is focused, as well as great deal of investment interest.

My focus was in the other direction, south of the sprawling capital of Juba, along the dramatic White Nile. I traveled with fantastic logistical support from the World Bank Juba office, from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s South Sudan conservation team, and from the director of the Nimule National Park.

Nimule is a remarkable site, with the White Nile variously raging and idling through as it expands and contracts from a wide flood plain to a series of raging rapids.  Nimule is also home to a large elephant population, largely spared during the conflict.  Nimule was also the sole beachhead of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, when the north and south engaged in bitter trench warfare on the very edge of the park.

Traveling by small plane, land rover, and foot with the Wildlife Conservation society’s South Sudan team and its dynamic director Paul Elkan, we visited the series of White Nile rapids on the edge of the park.  WCS is engaged in regional biodiversity conservation, eco-tourism development, and nation-building for South Sudan, and has been a partner in the region for a number of projects and programs.  I have never seen such a roar of water (see the embedded video, above) where boils and cauldrons flow violently upstream due to huge volume and the narrow channel the Fula Rapids occupy.  Photos of the rapids and park illustrate this blog.

The site raised a number of fundamental development opportunities and challenges for a nation that now has less than 200 megawatts of electric power generation.  First, how can ecologically sustainable run-of-the-river hydro and eco-development be designed and implemented in such a removed and underdeveloped region?  By some estimates, the Fula rapids could yield 60 megawatts of electric capacity. Meanwhile, there are several 700 to 800 megawatt projects large dam projects envisioned for the White Nile. Can efforts to build energy infrastructure and conservation dovetail with the needs to build regional power grids, and at a higher level, a regional power pool?  How would smaller-scale run-of-the-river hydro compare to large dams, which will be always be on the agenda for a river and region as underdeveloped as the White Nile?

These sorts of sustainable energy developments hold great promise to support nation-building in a region that very much is ready for this push.

Daniel Kammen’s posts appear here and on the Development in a Changing Climate blog at the World Bank, where he is chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency. He is an adviser to National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative.

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