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City limits: urbanisation and vulnerability in Nyala, Sudan

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:30


Margie Buchanan-Smith - Senior Research Associate, Humanitarian Policy Group


El Khidir Daloum - Regional Director for Latin America, Middle East and South East Europe, Save the Children

Susanne Jaspars - Independent (TBC)


Sara Pantuliano - Head, Humanitarian Policy Group

Dr Sara Pantuliano Head, Humanitarian Policy Group opened this event by highlighting that the case study of urbanisation in Nyala is part of a wider study on urbanisation in Sudan commissioned by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). The study explored the growing phenomenon of urbanisation in Sudan, and focused on the cities of Nyala, Khartoum, Port Sudan and Juba. The overall aim of the study was to identify the drivers of urbanisation in the country, how the international aid community can best engage with changing settlement patterns in Sudan and the implications of urbanisation for humanitarian and development programming.

Margaret Buchanan-Smith Senior Research Associate, Humanitarian Policy Group explained how Nyala, first settled in the late nineteenth century, had experienced several periods of growth between the 1930s and the early 1970s. While it was mainly pull factors that produced the early steady growth, from the mid-1970s onwards push factors, particularly drought- and conflict-induced displacement, had accelerated Nyala’s growth.

The estimated population of Nyala was around 60,000 in the 1970s; today the city hosts around 1.3 million people. In the space of 7–8 years the city has grown 2.5 times, presenting immense challenges to planning and governance. Today, the evidence shows an irrevocable change in Darfur’s settlement patterns, and the region has become much more urbanised. It seems highly unlikely that IDPs currently living in Nyala will voluntarily return to rural areas, particularly the younger generation. This is consistent with similar patterns of return elsewhere in Sudan, where only a small proportion of the displaced population living in urban areas (e.g. Khartoum or Kadugli) return to their rural areas of origin upon the restoration of peace and security.

The consequences of rapid urbanisation were also discussed. Nyala’s basic service infrastructure was inadequate even before the town’s recent rapid population growth and today it is under great strain. Network piped water currently reaches only 25% of the population and primary school classes are ill-equipped and overcrowded, hosting between 80–100 pupils. Rapid urbanisation has had disastrous environmental consequences. Growing demand for wood-fuel has led to huge deforestation and barren areas in the immediate outskirts of Nyala. Rapid urbanisation has also been linked with a weakening of social networks and traditional support mechanisms, an increased individualised way of living and escalating crime, banditry and lawlessness. Violence and insecurity is common in IDP camps and has increasingly extended to the rest of the city.

A number of issues in relation to the urban economy were also discussed. Historically, Nyala was associated with South Darfur’s rural economy, one of the most productive areas of the country. Agriculture and livestock production have collapsed since the start of the conflict in 2003, and Nyala has gradually switched from being a net exporter to a net importer. The huge number of international organisations (e.g. peacekeeping troops, NGOs) currently operating in Nyala is having a distorting effect on the economy. This is particularly noticeable in the construction and food sectors, driven by the demand for houses and offices for international organisations and for processed food. Both construction material and processed food are imported from Central Sudan.

Economic growth in Nyala is limited to certain sectors such as daily farming and construction. Other sectors have contracted significantly, particularly livestock and agriculture. The urban poor, including IDPs, are highly dependent on casual labour and earn low wages, which do not keep pace with the rising cost of living. Ironically Nyala’s urban poor, as in the other cities in this study, pay more for basic services than wealthier people in better-off neighbourhoods. The findings of this study point to an ongoing ‘brain drain’ from Darfur because of the poor quality of secondary school education. Wealthier professionals prefer to move or send their children to Khartoum, where there are better education prospects. The question remains, how many of those leaving will eventually return to Darfur?

The presentation then moved onto briefly discuss land-related issues in Nyala. The current demand for residential land is overwhelming the system and land prices are five times higher than at the beginning of the conflict in 2003. It is particularly hard for women to secure land rights. IDPs have been offered land by the government if they are willing to give up their ration cards and IDP status. This policy has not gained traction among IDPs, particularly because they are unwilling to renounce their status and because the land that they have been offered often has insecure tenure.

The international community is still failing to fully recognise the extent of rapid urbanisation in Darfur. Many agencies’ representatives interviewed for this study were not aware of the Nyala Master Plan, which seeks to transform the city into a modern urban centre with shopping malls and high rise buildings. Despite its ambitions, the Master Plan does not mention Nyala’s thousands of IDPs or current patterns of growth. The design of the Plan has been very top-down, with little consultation and involvement of local people. Thus far, the humanitarian community in Nyala has done very little to support the livelihoods of IDPs or to engage the private sector. While this is a missed opportunity, it is also important to recognise the difficult environment in which agencies are currently operating, with high levels of insecurity and restrictions on humanitarian access.

In conclusion Margaret pointed to the study’s key recommendations:

·         Rapid urbanisation in Darfur needs to be acknowledged by government, humanitarian and development actors. The opportunities and challenges that rapid urbanisation brings need to be recognised and acted upon.

·         More dialogue between international agencies and government ministries is needed to encourage a consultative and participatory urban planning approach, address the long-term implications of a large IDP population and principled voluntary return.

·         More significant investment by the international community in the provision of basic services is needed. How to do this without substituting for the government’s role and responsibility remains a real challenge.

·         Brick-making to support the booming construction sector is leading to significant environmental degradation, and there is a need for alternative construction technologies.

·         More efforts are needed to support the private sector with activities such as vocational training, micro-credit and support to the dairy industry.

Sara Pantuliano thanked Margaret for her presentation and introduced El Khidir Daloum

El Khidir began by stating that his views did not represent the views of Save the Children. He noted that urbanisation in Nyala has indeed been driven by push and pull factors, including hunger and insecurity, as well as by employment opportunities and social services. These factors also need to be viewed in the context of people’s livelihoods. During the 1980s those living in Nyala were able to send cash and other forms of support to their families in rural areas. From 2000 until 2003 the situation reversed as people in rural areas began to support their relatives in Nyala. Since 2004 neither exchanges of cash nor other support to urban relatives have been possible. El Khidir noted, in relation to the likelihood of IDPs remaining in Nyala, that their decision to return is closely linked to where they fled from. IDPs originating from Jebel Marra are likely to return as their land is fertile and as such they enjoy better livelihoods there than in Nyala. IDPs living in Falluja camp, largely from a nomadic background, will probably remain in Nyala as their livestock and livelihoods have been progressively depleted.

El Khidir concluded by stressing that humanitarians are well placed to respond to displacement in rural areas. The challenges presented by displacement in urban areas mean that humanitarians need to focus on the comparative advantages government and long-term development actors have and work together to maximise the impact of their interventions. Nyala’s population growth is directly linked to ongoing conflict in surrounding rural areas. Merely focusing on the development of a Master Plan for Nyala does not address the wider problem. The challenge for the government is to look at Darfur as a whole and address the root causes of urbanisation.

Sara Pantuliano thanked El Khidir Daloum and introduced Susanne Jaspars.

Susanne stressed the importance of urbanisation for the humanitarian community. Since the 1980s the bulk of humanitarian work has taken place in rural areas and this trend continues today, despite rapid urbanisation worldwide. Susanne praised the study’s rare and well-articulated discussion and detailed analysis of Nyala’s urban economy. As the presentation has pointed to several interesting findings, a number of questions can be raised.

Given the role that the international presence has played in distorting Nyala’s economy, what is going to happen when the international community leaves? Can international actors leave without causing another crisis? What does government policy on IDP return, providing residential plots and model villages and requesting that IDPs give up their status in exchange for land, mean for IDPs, particularly in terms of compensation and work opportunities? Are they going to remain casual labourers? What are aid agencies doing in this regard? Do we know enough about what IDPS themselves want? We also know that the geography of livelihoods is changing, with families splitting up, some members staying in Darfur and others moving to Khartoum, even to London. What is the role of aid in this regard? And crucially, IDP communities, the government and the international community all have different visions for the future of Nyala. How can a common vision for the future be developed and how do we reconcile different visions?

Sara Pantuliano then opened the floor to questions. Some of the discussion is highlighted here.

When a peace agreement is eventually signed, a lot of money will be pledged for the recovery and reconstruction of Darfur. Where should this money be allocated?

When peace is restored there will be many competing priorities. Investment in urban infrastructure, transport and communications will be crucial to enable Darfur’s potential. The private sector will be the key engine of economic recovery. Substantial investment is needed to enable people to recover their livelihoods and support those wanting to return to their area of origin.

Why did DFID commission this research, and what is the role of the government in urban areas?

There was increasing awareness of the importance of urban poverty in Sudan and the need to respond. The launch of the case studies in Sudan next month will provide a good opportunity for dialogue between the international community and the government on how best to respond to the needs of the urban population of Sudan. Currently, government engagement with urbanisation, particularly in Nyala, is largely focused on the technical aspects (e.g. the development of a Master Plan) of urbanisation and planning, with little consideration of social dynamics, poverty and issues of inclusion and participation in urban planning and management. For the realisation of the plan it is important that different ministries are engaged and work towards a common vision, and engage in a dialogue on the future of Nyala. Both the Khartoum and Nyala case studies have benefited from the substantial engagement and participation of government agencies (e.g. secondment of staff to the research team), pointing to an interest in some government agencies for further substantial engagement and a better understanding of urbanisation.

How will the future of Nyala be affected by the separation of South Sudan?

Undoubtedly there will be repercussions for Nyala and its economy, and the many petty traders of Darfur, trading handicrafts or honey and regularly importing their goods from the South. These traders will soon need a visa in order to travel to the South. Another key repercussion will be on nomadic movements, which will once again be constrained, negatively impacting pastoralists.

Given the current context, is it the right time for humanitarians to advocate for resources to be put towards development and urbanisation?

Acknowledgment of increasing patterns of urbanisation and support to the growth and development of Nyala require urgent attention. Whether attention and efforts will fall under humanitarian or development spheres, or both, is not as important as ensuring that support is provided in a good, timely and impartial way.

Is there an opportunity to invest in agriculture and livestock development to help communities remain in rural areas?

While the findings of the studies have pointed to the need to start thinking about how best to respond to the needs of the growing urban population, the findings have also pointed to the needs of rural areas. It is therefore crucial to continue support for rural–urban linkages. Some IDPs have started farming in areas close to Nyala, for example. Some are returning on a seasonal basis, some families are splitting, with some members staying in Nyala while others return to rural areas. These linkages and livelihood strategies need to be better understood, investigated and, where appropriate, supported.


Over the past four decades the cities and towns of Sudan have experienced dramatic population growth. Urbanisation has occurred in a context of poor governance, decreasing job opportunities, deepening social and economic insecurity and conflict-induced displacement. Growing numbers of poor and vulnerable urban dwellers live in abject poverty, are vulnerable to a range of daily protection threats and face acute challenges in relation to access to livelihoods, basic services and land.

Presenting case studies from Khartoum, Juba, Nyala and Port Sudan, this meeting series by the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute explores the phenomenon of urbanisation and its drivers in different parts of Sudan, and analyses its social, environmental and economic consequences, with particular attention to urban livelihoods, as well as infrastructure and the provision of basic services. The findings suggest that current international humanitarian and development approaches are not yet geared to respond to urbanisation’s challenges, with the focus predominantly being on assisting rural communities. As a result, the urban poor in Sudan have been effectively left to fend for themselves – largely forgotten by the government and the international community alike.

The second meeting in the series will reflect on the challenges of the rapid but distorted process of urbanisation that has engulfed Nyala in South Darfur, since the conflict began eight years ago. The population has almost trebled due to large-scale displacement as Darfur's settlement pattern appears to be changing irrevocably. Services and urban infrastructure are overwhelmed, exacerbated by a lack of government resources and investment. While parts of the economy are booming, many urban livelihoods are under great stress. So far the international community's engagement with urbanisation has been predominantly humanitarian, focusing on immediate service provision. What scope is there for entering into dialogue with government about Nyala's longer-term future and a vision for South Darfur?