South Sudan's Papyrus Guardians

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Tears flowed freely when then South Sudan leader John Garang’s plane crashed on July 30th 2005 and killed him together with several others on board. Many knew him as the father of South Sudan, as a rebel leader turned statesman who waged both war and peace.

What few knew was that his doctoral thesis was on the Jonglei Canal Project. Construction of this canal commenced in the late 1970s, with a goal of providing a channel for the Al-Jabal River to flow uninterrupted until the White Nile.

John Garang wrote his Jonglei Canal dissertation at Iowa State University in 1981 when he was 36 years old. He argued that the canal should equally benefit all Sudanese people, whether they were Arab Northerners or Dinkas; Nubians or Darfurians. All the people of Sudan. In later years when his Sudan People’s Liberation Army halted construction of the canal because they felt that its benefits would be lopsided to the disadvantage of his people.

The story of this canal is closely linked to the story of the papyrus that grows in the adjacent Sudd wetland, the largest tropical wetland in the world.

The papyrus is wet and alert. Its shaggy crown reminds one of those young men whose entire identity seems to reside in their shaggy hair. But unlike such youngsters, this papyrus plant isn’t restless. Its calm demeanour can be seen and felt. Despite the rather strong evening breeze, it is swaying ever so gently.

A hippo wades towards the papyrus, its big mouth sullen, its small eyes animated. If the papyrus had legs it would have fled. But it remains as calm as the evening sunset that smiles down on the vast Sudd wetland. The hippo stops in its tracks, as if scared by the papyrus. It turns around in slow motion fashion and wades towards a different direction.

If you look closely, about two metres to the right of the papyrus, you will see two pairs of bright eyes, shining as if powered by a silent generator. The pair of eyes belong to two crocodiles that are doing nothing but basking in the cool waters of the White Nile. They will wait patiently for nature to send food to them. Sooner or later, animals like the sitatunga will wander too near the two pairs of eyes and end up in the bellies of the two crocodiles.

A great white pelicans glides barely a few metres away from the crocodiles, unafraid of the ferocious creatures. Every once in a while, the pelican dips its massive beak into the tranquil waters as it digs for fish. Some of the fish that end up in its belly are tiny catfish.

Away from site in the deeps of the wetland’s waters, a diverse army of fish shimmies and swims in all directions. Among them is the Nile bichir, also known as the dinosaur eel or the dragon fish. It is quite an interesting fish that can survive out of water for a long time, as long as its skin remains moist.

Also racing in the water close to the calm papyrus are the African lungfishes. Their elongated bodies provide them with agile mobility in the water. This fish is historic in a literal sense. It has lobe fins that enable them to walk – kind of. They swim as if they are walking or crawling in roughly the same way that four-legged animals swim in the water. Unlike most fish, it also has lungs, hence the name lungfish.

Indeed, the staggering size of Sudd wetland is a vast refuge for biodiversity. During the rainy season when water pumps incessantly into the wetland, it can expand beyond 130,000 square km, an area the size of England. Many environmentalists have consistently been of the opinion that the Jonglei canal would drain water from the wetland and compromise its ability to continue providing ecosystem services not just for the wildlife that calls the wetland home, but also for the thousands of South Sudanese people who depend on it.

The papyrus stands as a silent guardian in many places across this vast wetland. It observes as hundreds of internally displaced people pour into different sections of the wetland, fleeing from the civil war that keeps flaring in the young country.

The papyrus also listens keenly to the elephants as they trumpet their joy at the bountiful feast of lush vegetation that is a trademark of the wetland.

Both the papyrus and elephants must wonder why so much blood is shed in a land that is full of utter beauty and serenity.

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