Sudan’s cultural heritage is in peril once again. The recent announcement by the Sudanese government to move forward with its plans to construct three massive Chinese-backed hydroelectric dams along the Nile River and its tributaries has put international archaeological and cultural heritage organizations on high alert.
The Nile River, which flows through ten countries from its origin deep in equatorial Africa and drains into the blossom-shaped delta region of northern Egypt, has been the watery lifeblood of those living along its banks for millennia. Civilizations great and small built their kingdoms and cities along the river, leaving behind magnificent traces of the past—many of which remain unexplored to this day. The proposed dams would submerge hundreds of archaeological sites forever under the rising water levels, including ancient settlements from the first Nubian Kingdom of Kerma, New Kingdom Egyptian sites, Nubian tower houses and rock carvings, medieval churches and forts, and Christian frescos.
This is not the first time a massive dam project has threatened Sudan’s cultural heritage. While dams allow for vital long-term water storage, generate electricity, guarantee water supplies, and provide protection against high floods and drought years, they often have profound impacts on the cultural and social landscapes of a region. Most recently, the controversial completion of Sudan’s $2 billion Merowe Dam on the fourth cataract in 2009 resulted in the permanent flooding of hundreds of archaeological sites, not to mention irreversible ecological consequences and the displacement of more than 70,000 people. The proposed Kajbar, Shereik and Dal dams would have a similar effect on their respective regions, again drowning hundreds of sites and displacing roughly 20,000 people from their ancestral homelands through compulsory resettlement to arid, inhospitable desert regions.
Presently, Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) is appealing to the international community for help, urging archaeological teams to conduct salvage excavations in Sudan before the sites meet their watery graves in the coming years. Yet, the very nature of salvage excavations raises important ethical questions. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do foreign archaeologists have when conducting salvage operations? Does their involvement in these missions facilitate the legitimatization of dam projects and subsequent impact on the environment and cultural landscape, as well as possible human rights abuses?
On the other hand, if these sites are going to be flooded forever shouldn’t we rescue and recover as many artifacts and information as possible? “We can’t be debating ethics while dams are built,” argues Neal Spencer, an archaeologist at the British Museum. In addition, archaeologists have been successful in generating public awareness to the point where foreign funders have pulled out of international projects, as was the case with the construction of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. (Unfortunately, the international community was unable to stop the construction of the dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2013.)
Sudanese officials argue the dam projects are instrumental in exploiting the country’s resources for human development and necessary to “safeguard Sudan’s remaining water share allotted in the 1959 Nile Water Agreement.” The statement speaks to the recent signing of a new water-sharing agreement by six of the ten Nile Basin countries. Under the current 1959 Agreement, Egypt and Sudan are allotted the lion’s share of resources; however, the new 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement seeks a more equitable distribution of water between the countries. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the new framework agreement, vowing to retain their historical water rights. Their refusal to sign directly reflects the decades-long struggle between the basin countries for greater control of resources, a struggle that directly plays into the decision to build the dams and ultimately the future of Sudan’s magnificent cultural heritage.
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