In the southern half of The Sudan - Africa's largest country and potentially one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world - a battle of giants is taking place near the White Nile: the world's biggest excavator versus the world's most formidable swamp. Plague-ridden and almost impenetrable, the Sudd - an immense swamp the size of Florida - straddles the White Nile and separates The Sudan's Arab north and African south. Meaning "barrier" in Arabic, the "Sudd" has defied man since the beginning of time. It blocked the advance into central Africa of the Emperor Nero's Roman legions and, in 1870, delayed explorer Samuel Baker and 1,600 men.
Even the Nile itself gets lost, if only temporarily, in the Sudd. Despite its immense volume of water and the great force built up as it flows north from central Africa, the Nile slows and disperses as it reaches the stagnant, crocodile-infested sea of papyrus, ferns and rotting vegetation. As a result, Nile Valley farmers lose an estimated 1,483 billion cubic feet of water a year through seepage and evaporation.
But now, in an ambitious attempt to reclaim the lost waters of the Nile and irrigate a million acres of new farmland, the Sudanese are cutting a 173-mile navigable drainage canal through the Sudd: the Jonglei-to-Malakel canal. If it is successful The Sudan will recapture some 511 billion cubic feet of water per year and realize not only its own agricultural potential, but also increase that of Egypt, far downstream. The Jonglei project, moreover, is but one part of The Sudan's enormous effort to tap the potential riches of what one reporter said "could become the greatest agricultural region known." (See Aramco World, May-June 1978)
As in Morocco and the Congo Basin, where different but equally urgent projects are underway, The Sudan's attempt to expand and modernize its agricultural potential is being financed in part by Arab money. Some of the money is private - one Saudi Arab investor has put $50 million into a Sudanese farm complex devoted to sorghum, sesame, cotton and sheep - but, as usual, most of it is coming from the great aid funds set up by the Arab oil states to funnel petroleum revenues into projects in developing countries.
With respect to The Sudan, however, the Arab countries have a particular interest. Short of agricultural land themselves, and located, for the most part, in the more arid regions of the Middle East, the Arab oil states could themselves provide important markets for food if The Sudan were to develop its full agricultural potential. For that reason 12 Arab countries - particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - have established a massive investment program to turn The Sudan into the "breadbasket" of the Middle East. A 10-year, $6.5-billion undertaking, the program is so big - more than 100 projects are underway or being planned - that the Arab investors have established a special agency to administer it: the Khartoum-based Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment.
Some of the investments - national, international and private - will go directly into purely agricultural projects. Among the possibilities are ranches large enough to graze 68,000 cattle and 11,000 sheep, cotton and peanut plantations, and an enormous expansion of the sugar crop. If successful, The Sudan, in a few years, could be providing huge proportions of the Arab world's sugar, meat and vegetable oil. But because The Sudan is in exceptionally poor condition economically - it has faced bankruptcy more than once in the 1970's - no less than a third of the $6.5 billion is to be spent on infrastructure projects: port expansion, rail improvements, new highways, airports, hydroelectric power projects and water storage. Without them neither the development nor the export of agricultural products would be possible.
One such project is a new 750-mile highway linking Khartoum and Port Sudan, a road through the Red Sea hills which is being financed by loans from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the OPEC Special Fund, and which, when completed, will carry vital imports from Port Sudan to Khartoum and beyond, and agricultural exports in the opposite direction.
By 1978 the first 126-mile stretch of the highway - between Port Sudan and the railway town of Haiya - was already open and having an effect on the inhabitants of the area. Trucks, loaded with crops, ply the road busily and, at an intersection 36 miles from Port Sudan, a new village of 100 houses has been built. "You can already notice the change in the standard of living along the road," says one frequent traveler -and Osman AH, who lives in a hamlet 14 miles west of Port Sudan, agrees. "I used to spend hours traveling to market on my camel. Now I just hop on a truck." He also supplements his income by selling tea and coffee to travelers at the roadside.
Because of the terrain the main 75-mile stretch of the two lane highway, between "Kilometer 58" and Haiya, took four years to complete. There are, for example, 37 bridges, and it took some 120 tons of explosives to blast a path through the Red Sea hills. But there were also compensations: on-the-job training of Sudanese workers by Strabag Bau, the West German contractors who are building the road. As a result local Sudanese now man virtually all major machinery as the rest of the project continues.
Another key project-completed in 1979 - is the Rahad irrigation project, an immense and complex system to water some 300,000 acres of farmland in an area extending south from Mataza to the confluence of the Rahad River and the Blue Nile.
At the heart of the system is an electrically powered pumping station - the largest of its kind in Africa - which siphons 3,700 cubic feet of water per second out of the Blue Nile at Meina. From there, it is carried by a 50-mile long, 35-yard wide canal that flows under the River Dinder and discharged into the River Rahad near Mafaza, where it is stored behind a small dam. The dam prevents the water from rushing wastefully down into the riverbed, which is dry six months out of 12; instead it is channeled into a 3,590-mile network of irrigation and drainage canals.
Altogether, the Rahad project has created 16,800 new farms: 12,800 farms of 22 acres each for cotton and ground nuts and 4,000 five-acre plots for fruits and vegetables. In addition to land and water, the government offers the farmers financial assistance to establish themselves in the project and - through the Rahad Corporation, a government agency set up to supervise the scheme - farming, processing and marketing facilities, including four cotton ginning factories and groundnut decorticating plants.
But the project deals with more than just water. Elaborately organized, it also provides homes to house 100,000 people, drinking water,, electricity, schools, clinics, roads and research farms. The impact has been enormous. As early as 1978 - even before it was completed - the new villages, most of them the traditional domed huts with thatched roofs, bustled with activity as the villagers brought in the first crops of groundnuts from the virgin soil and ran the first cotton through the new ginning complex.
"We have really revolutionized their lives," says a Rahad Corporation spokesman, pointing to the vast tracts of fertile land, dotted with new homes, water towers and electricity pylons, bordering the River Rahad. "Not long ago this was semi-desert. During the dry season the only drinking water available was from pools in the river bed. Now look at it."
The Rahad project has cost the Sudanese government about $333 million - but almost a third of it was provided by the Saudi and Kuwait Funds and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.
So far no Arab aid has been definitely granted for the Jonglei Canal project, but sources in The Sudan say substantial financial backing is forthcoming and, in any case, the project has been launched. In August, 1978, work began with the assembly of the giant excavator, a 450-foot machine weighing 2,000 tons. Built by West Germany's Siemens Company, and used only once before, the excavator looks and functions like an enormous ferris wheel: as the wheel turns, huge buckets mounted on it take great bites of earth out of the ground and dump them onto a conveyor belt that carries them away. The excavator can shift about 159,000 cubic feet of earth every hour - enough to fill the New Orleans Superdome to a depth of 11 feet. Engineers expect completion of the canal in 1981 - just in time, Arab aid officials think, to provide irrigation for the new breadbasket of the Middle East.