As the country is emerging from a conflict that has had far-reaching humanitarian and developmental consequences, one may wonder if the time is right for South Sudan to be tackling climate change. Fortunately, the conference facilitators did not shy away from this question and chose to address it head-on in the opening session. The proceedings acknowledged that conflict was the primary cause of the existing problems in the country and that recovery and stabilisation are the immediate priorities for South Sudan. However, government and UN representatives also stressed that sustainable and climate-resilient development would be essential to realising South Sudan’s potential. Attaining the country’s potential was a key theme of the conference, with presentations on renewable energy, water management, early warning systems and resilient livelihoods all highlighting the wealth of natural resources in South Sudan. Of particular interest was a presentation by one of the UN Environment Senior Advisors. The presentation provided economic evidence from other African countries that clearly showed how investments into sound environmental management yield net positive rates of return. The message to South Sudan was clear: while the country is developing its economy, it should consider that caring for the environment is economically feasible. Evidence showing the economic benefits of investing in renewable energies as well as water and environmental management is a strong motivating factor for decision-makers to consider these options.
With the scene set by UN representatives and all protocols observed, presentations on international best practices for climate resilience continued throughout the first day. When the podium was finally mine, I had the opportunity to highlight the importance of a nexus approach to water management in South Sudan – how climate change impacts would disproportionally affect water resources and the knock-on effects this would have on food and energy production. For a country with considerable water resources, adequate management is a key issue – a point that was echoed by respondents amongst the attendees. South Sudan has roughly equivalent renewable water resources compared to South Africa but with less than a third of the population. Yet water access remains a challenge, with much of the country’s water constrained to rivers. The northern areas, in particular, tend to experience a lack of access to suitable water during dry seasons. Overcoming this skewed distribution of water, in both space and time, without overusing the resource will be South Sudan’s challenge in the coming years.
Proceedings on the second day were largely dominated by a group discussion session. Three large groups discussed the general themes of: i) climate-resilient livelihoods; ii) water management and renewable energy; and iii) climate change, disaster risk management and institutional capacity building. I joined the discussion on sustainable water management and renewable energy. I was interested and somewhat surprised when the group began a lively discussion around water management – virtually ignoring energy. Usually, energy is the firm favourite topic and water professionals like myself must struggle for attention. But the workshop attendants were far more interested in discussing water governance, water access, flood management and urban drainage. The point of the exercise was to present three action points from group discussions. Our action points asked for: i) improved governance of water – with examples including establishing water user associations and catchment management authorities, amongst others; ii) promoting water harvesting technologies in rural areas; and iii) creating climate-conscious flood management plans for river basins with particular attention given to flood harvesting.
Overall, I was impressed with the conference result. The information presented by experts was comprehensive, but what was most heartening was that decision-makers in South Sudan showed a keen awareness of the climate change challenges facing their country. These decision makers also voiced their commitment to tackling climate change and environmental degradation as part of their development strategy. There was clearly a willingness in the room to take steps towards the development of a sustainable and climate-resilient economy in South Sudan.