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Technical Innovations Implemented in Sudan in Spite of War - 2002-08-06

The long civil war in southern Sudan has taken its toll: 1.5 million dead, four million displaced and the few public services that once existed destroyed. But aid agencies have been able to provide some help with innovative technologies even in the midst of continuing war.

Much of southern Sudan is cattle country. There are more cattle, about 13 million, than there are people. And the herds graze just about everywhere. But in one town, Rumbeck, in Sudan's southwestern Bahr el Ghazal province, the scene is a little different. The cattle are grazing contentedly around a big satellite dish.

That satellite dish gave Rumbeck's football fans the chance to watch television broadcasts of World Cup matches for the first time at the village's information center. Villagers, like Kwal Daniel, say they also can now watch television news programs or send e-mail messages to loved ones living abroad.

The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, provided the satellite dish, and the center is run by Rumbeck's young people, with help from UNICEF.

Mr. Daniel says having access to the internet has revolutionized the way he communicates with family members who sought refuge abroad from the civil war.

"We do communicate with people through hand messages and that one used to take two to three months and some take years even," he said.

The head of the information center says that each day, about 30 people use the computers, which operate on electricity provided by a generator. He says training classes offered to the villagers on computer and internet use will expand business and people's awareness of the larger world.

Rumbeck also is the site of the first pilot project using an alternatives to firewood to provide cooking and heating for the villagers.

An agricultural engineer working with UNICEF, David Njoroge, says the tons of waste produced by cows in southern Sudan are being used to create "biogas," a form of methane gas. Mr. Njoroge says he has created a machine called a biogas digester to transform the dung into fuel.

"You are giving people an alternative to firewood and so people will not cut trees for the purposes of cooking and even lighting," he said. "In this case, you are going to save the existing forest. In fact, what comes out from the biogas digester, the effluent, is soil fertilizer. You can use it to grow more trees."

Mr. Njoroge says Rumbeck's secondary school is using biogas to cook one meal a day for 50 students. He says other schools, youth and women's groups, and individual households all want to use biogas as a cheap, readily available fuel source.

In another part of Bahr el Ghazal, in Aweil East, southern Sudan's dominant cattle culture nearly blocked an innovative project to grow rice. The lowland where rice grows is the very same land used for cattle grazing. But after some tribal negotiations, a Christian aid agency, Tearfund, is re-introducing rice to the region because sorghum, a favorite crop, is difficult to grow in area.

Issac Liabwel Yol, an irrigation specialist from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, is consulting Tearfund on the project. Mr. Yol, who is a native of the area, says he is devising ways to extend rice production beyond the rainy season into the dry season. He says he also is looking at ways to store flood water to use it to grow not only rice but fruits and vegetables as well.

"We want to extend and bring new technologies of using water for agricultural production," he said. "So we have to capture water either get it from the ground, from flooding, from rain. So we want to make the various sources of water in agricultural production."

Tearfund and other similar agencies at looking at ways to make the food supply more reliable for the people of southern Sudan. They are operating nutritional feeding centers for children under five and introducing less labor-intensive techniques to make plowing, harvesting, and milling crops more effective.

Tearfund's project officer in Bahr el Ghazel, Shona MacPherson says that just having peace and stability would enable southern Sudan to develop further.

"It's a vicious cycle because of the war. It's hard for new technologies to come through," she said. "Until there is a secure environment to introduce these new technologies, it's difficult. But slowly the NGOs [non-governmental organzations] are able to provide some of the inputs."

Ms. MacPherson says the aid agencies hope that peace will soon come to Sudan so that even more can be done to improve people's lives. New peace talks are scheduled later this month in Kenya.