Late Peter Gatkuoth goes to the grave with crucial answers on dredging of rivers

Late Peter Gatkuoth goes to the grave with crucial answers on dredging of rivers
Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Peter Gatkuoth, [centre] speaking to journalists on Wednesday in Juba. [Alex Bullen, City Review]

The jury is still out on what exactly Peter Gatkuoth, now deceased, was going to tell the cabinet on Friday, June 17, regarding the controversial matter of dredging of the Naam River and plans to resume Jonglei Canal construction.

His death as the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation leaves the government’s stance on river dredging, which has been a cause of contention between the people and the government, hanging in the balance.

The now-deceased minister was supposed to deliver to the cabinet his ministry’s plans, including the dredging on Friday, but he became gravely ill and was transferred to Egypt for further medical assistance.

His death occurred at a time when the government and the public were completely reliant on him to present his ministry plan in order for the government to comprehensively explain and clarify its position on the dredging.

After his ministry announced the arrival of dredging machines from Egypt via Sudan to kick start the dredging of the Naam river in Bentinu, Unity State, the Minister has been working in a moment of divided opinion among the public and government authorities.

Following the announcement, a group of lawyers headed by Elario Adam Cholong, a Juba-based lawyer, filed a lawsuit in the East African court of justice against the government of South Sudan, claiming that the project is environmentally unsustainable and that it will pass through a protected area in East Africa, with undue regard for East African livelihoods, gender, food, children, and public health.

The lawyer further said that the area through which the dredging project will travel has many towns, farmlands, and water sources for thousands of indigenous people and that their rights have been ignored.

Dr. Riek Machar, the First Vice President, asked the ministers of water resources and irrigation, environment and forestry, and presidential affairs to brief the cabinet on the dredging last Friday during a governance cluster meeting last week.

Dredging debate

Before his death, Minister Manawa Peter’s press secretary told the media that the dredging of the Naam River will go forward as planned, despite public opposition and a lawsuit filed by a group of lawyers before the EAC.

In a press conference two weeks ago, the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Josephine Napwon, claimed that dredging any river in the country without sufficient environmental studies would harm aquatic animals and plants and that she had been informed about the dredging.

Similarly, the President’s press secretary denied the office of the President is aware of the importation of dredging machines said to have arrived in Unity State to begin work on dredging the Naam River in Bentiu in order to stem flooding in the area.

Despite conflicting reactions to the dredging, Michael Makuei, the minister of information and government spokesperson, challenged public criticism of the government on social media platforms over the dredging and Jonglei canal on May 13, 2022.

Makuei emphasized that anyone writing about the Jonglei Canal should do it from a place of knowledge rather than an opinion.

He said: “Up to now, the issue of the Jonglei Canal has not been discussed by the cluster not even the government it is not yet presented up to this time what was presented here was the overall policy of the ministry of water resources and irrigation for the control of water and for availing water to other areas where there is no water it has nothing to do with Jonglei canal,” Makuei said

On the other hand, the Minister told journalists at a cabinet meeting briefing on that same date that the budget for the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation to purchase equipment to carry out its activities had been approved.

The cost of implementation was estimated to be $28,233,714. This amount was supposed to be within the ministry’s budget for this year, and the cabinet approved payment of this amount to the ministry so that it could operationalise its projects for this year; however, this equipment will last for a long time, and it will be able to save South Sudan and other mini-states.

“The operation of this project is actually for the purchase of the equipment that is needed for the ministry in order to enable it to conduct its functions and duties in terms of development of water sources like (hafiras) dredging of the rivers and construction of mini dames for the reservation of water,” he explained.

Save the Sudd Campaign, an advocacy group for South Sudanese appealed to the national parliament to examine the topic, which they described as “interesting.”

They demanded that all illicit exploitation of the Sudd Wetlands and its ecosystems be stopped immediately.

 “We are inspired by the historical liberation of the people of South Sudan and their determination to build a better country based on the pillars of the liberal ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and respect for human rights”.

“We are guided by the vision of a sovereign Republic of South Sudan that aspires to address its political, social, and economic issues through consensus building”’, the statement of the advocates read.