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Lack of Infrastructure a Major Challenge for South Sudan

New buildings are under construction in Juba as the city prepares to become a capital, Southern Sudan, January 12, 2011

South Sudan is due to become the world’s 193rd nation on July 9, following a referendum last month in which nearly 99 percent of its voters chose to separate from Sudan. Africa’s newest nation will also join the ranks of the world’s least-developed countries because of decades of war and neglect by the government in Khartoum. The new government says one of the biggest obstacles to development is the lack of infrastructure.

Residents of Kapoeta, a town of 10,000 people near the border with Uganda and Kenya, recently celebrated the inauguration of an electrical plant and distribution system, giving them electric lights and power for the first time in decades.

This is the second of three rural electrification projects, funded by the United States, aimed at boosting business and security in remote parts of southern Sudan.

South Sudanese Energy Minister Garang Diing Akuong called the project part of the peace dividend people are beginning to see six years after the end of Sudan’s civil war. But he acknowledged that these are just the first, small steps.

"The government is well aware of the difficulties that we face as new country, which are going to be very, very challenging. We will try to build an economy that has not been existing [in existence], actually," he said.

South Sudan, the size of France, has only 50 kilometers of paved streets and no paved highways.

The 200-kilometer road from Juba to the Ugandan border is an economic lifeline to Kenya’s Indian Ocean ports and the outside world. It is being paved for the first time with $200 million from the U.S. government.

The United Nations is refurbishing some 2,000 kilometers of dirt roads linking major cities and towns.

Donors have also launched programs to bring water and sanitation pipes to communities that have known only water trucks and septic tanks. Experts say this will help to reduce preventable diseases.

Experts say a less visible part of the infrastructure needed is in the area of governance.

The head of the United Nations Mission in Southern Sudan, David Gressley, says a great deal has been done since the end of the war to strengthen government and legal structures. But he says much remains to be done.

"Many of the ministries here are still weak on their ability to deliver services," he said. "They are not as well structured as they should be. And they get weaker as you go down to the state, county levels and below. So strengthening that administrative structure will be very important."

U.S. Consul-General Barrie Walkley says an independent south Sudan will need help from everyone, including international donors.

"We’ll be working on agriculture. We’ll also be moving into health and into education. And wherever possible we’d like to continue this electrification project," he said.

Everyone agrees the needs are enormous. But - one project at a time - they hope to build the foundation needed to bring economic development and social services which were a major reason for the struggle.