Uncertainty is a permanent and constant risk for pastoralists, both in terms of the physical environment and the socioeconomic and political conditions surrounding them. The Southern White Nile State in Sudan is home to many such groups that have faced uncertainty for a long time as they have practiced the tradition of moving between north and south with their animals as a means for pursuing their livelihoods. It is therefore important to understand how pastoralists in this area are coping with uncertainties and whether such coping strategies are sustainable.

Mobile Pastoralism

Pastoralists in the southern White Nile State have adopted transhumance, characterized by seasonal movement with their herds in two directions. In previous years, they used to move between north and south, starting from as far north as Alkawa on the White Nile and the Managil area in what is today the Gazeira State at the peak of the rainy season and going gradually southward to areas around Aljabalain, where they would utilize post-harvest remains from farms there to feed their animals. This is no longer the case, as farm owners retain the post-harvest remains exclusively for their own animals or for sale in local markets.

The second type of movement is east–west oriented. Animal owners have been obliged to move their animals away from farms when the first rains fall, taking them to areas especially reserved for rainy season grazing (makharif, in Arabic). Nowadays, however, most such areas are occupied by new farms. Some families with many animals may even cross the White Nile River so they can graze them in the sandy stretches southwest of Kosti town, where mechanized farming is limited.

Decline of Grazing Areas

The grazing areas have declined for several reasons. First, the area between the White Nile and Blue Nile used to be characterized by the prevalence of a subsistence economy largely based on rain-fed cultivation and transhumant livestock breeding. The Gazira scheme, started in 1927 as the largest cotton plantation in Africa and expanded in the 1960’s, developed at the expense of pastoral activities there.

Furthermore, the communal land tenure system prevalent in areas away from the banks of the river made it easy for subsequent Sudanese governments to allocate open grazing areas to new agricultural projects as they saw fit—allocations that have always resulted in the shrinking of open communal grazing areas.

Finally, land in the White Nile became attractive for establishing irrigated sugar plantations such as  Assalaya (1970s), Kinana (1980s) and White Nile (2012), all of which caused serious land shortages.

Water Scarcity

Water availability is a critical factor in the pastoral system because, together with fodder, it determines the movements of the herd. Nowadays the effects of water scarcity are greatly felt by the pastoral households in Sudan because drinking water has been commercialized during the past two decades. Water is obtained for livestock consumption in a number of ways:

  • Artificial water pools are excavated by the government, although they rarely satisfy the demand for water in the villages, either because their capacity is reduced by siltation or because the numbers of people and animals have increased.
  • Communal pools established through self-help efforts by the villagers is a new development, following on the decision to privatize water sources in the early 1990s. Well-organized villages now have their own pools, and some of them organize to maintain government-established pools as well.
  • Privately owned water pools are excavated inside large farms. After harvest, they are used either to water the animals of the owner that graze on fodder remaining from the harvest or they are rented to rich pastoralists, together with the farm, for the same purpose.
  •  Recently, some livestock owners have started utilizing mobile water facilities. They put a mobile water tank where there is plenty of pasture and brings water from the river (about ten to thirty kilometers away) using a tanker truck.

Taking animals to the river to drink is the last option. One difficulty with it is that many of the historically known routes to the river have been blocked through the establishment of fruit and vegetable gardens next to it. Because animals taken to the river will usually be away from pasture areas, this option for watering animals is usually combined with renting a piece of land in the islands where good pasture is abundant.

Coping Strategies

Pastoralists in the southern White Nile have adopted different strategies to cope with the changing conditions, according to the situations of individual households rather than by following a generalized customary practice. This has produced a variety of evolving patterns of practice:

  • Many pastoralists have shifted to sheep breeding, reducing or leaving altogether cattle breeding, which is more demanding in terms of water and pasture requirements.
  • Many families have started diversifying livelihood activities. Some family members seek work in small or large urban centers, while others even migrate outside Sudan in search of better opportunities to earn livings and help their families
  • Rich pastoralists have resorted to buying agricultural schemes (farms) that they cultivate, and they let their animals graze post-harvest remains during the dry months of the year. This means moving from traditional livestock breeding to a commercial style.
  • Alternatively, pastoralists can pay scheme owners a considerable amount of money so their animals may graze post-harvest remains. Usually such a deal will include a constructed water pool inside the scheme.
  • Pastoralists with many cattle may prefer to keep their animals in the South Sudan permanently but allow their families to stay in the north, visiting them periodically to participate in social occasions and so on.
  • Some pastoralists have adopted sedenterization and moved with their families to urban centers. A substantial number of such families live in squatter settlements encircling many towns and cities in Sudan, becoming part of the class of the “urban poor.”

In conclusion, it is clear that the conventional perception of pastoralists, as a group of people whose livelihood traditionally follow one pattern of action, is not valid in this case.