Monday, July 11, 2011

South Sudan

See this map with timeline at Washington Post

I happened to be listening to the BBC (via WBUR) late Friday evening, when it was beginning to report on the festivities surrounding the emergence of the world's newest country: South Sudan. For now, much attention is rightly focused on the jubilation that follows the decades-long struggle for the self-determination of people whose promised role in the governance of Sudan was never forthcoming. The fact that 98.8 percent of its people voted for secession is an indication of how very overdue has been this transformation. It can only be hoped that unity and jubilation are enough to advance a country that will have been monitored from Day One by a United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNMISS, whose web site is not yet distinct from UNMIS).

In addition to the BBC, the geographers at About.com have been among the best sources I have found for news and background on the new country. Editor Matt Rosenberg has written a thorough guide to the transition, while contributing writer Amanda Briney has written a detailed overview of the geography of South Sudan.

The map above is part of extensive coverage by the Washington Post. Like any good map, it tells several important parts of the story, including the strong climatic divide between arid, semi-tropical Sudan and wet tropical South Sudan. Located between 4 and 9 degrees north, the new country is dominated by tropical rain forest. Its ten provinces, in fact, include three named for its equatorial location. Not indicated on the map -- but well explained by geographer Briney -- are the language divides that were imposed when Egypt and England imposed boundaries that were to remain in place from 1947 until this weekend. One welcome feature of the map is its blurry edges -- Sudan and South Sudan exist within a regional context that extends in all directions and that does not end abruptly with any river, coastline, or edge of empire.

Perhaps most important for the economic future of the country is the location of the oil fields, which most have by now heard are located in South Sudan. The implications of this loss for Sudan are difficult to fathom, but their location in the immediate border zone suggest that the struggle for these resources is far from over. In fact, the Abyei region is contested, even before the sun rose on the first day of independence. Moreover, the map makes clear that Africa's 15th landlocked country faces a number of unpleasant choices for the export of its main commodity. Existing pipelines run through Sudan, by far the most convenient route to world markets. All other options are through impossible terrain (such as the highlands of Ethiopia), vast distances through other landlocked countries (such as any possible route through the Central African Republic), or through areas experiencing even more strife than Sudan (such as the Congo).

The complex geography and fraught history suggest that the events of the past weekend are, indeed, just a beginning of what the world needs to learn about South Sudan. An excellent series of maps from BBC is a good starting point. I look forward to seeing an update on the CIA World Factbook, which currently acknowledges the need for a new listing, but lists only Sudan as of this writing.

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