Civic space in Sudan is considered repressed according to the CIVICUS Monitor and as a result the country has seen ongoing pro-democracy protests since October 2021. Among the issues raised by civic society organisations and activists, such as the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, is the continued arrest, detainment, and alleged torture of human rights activists by military units.

In addition to challenges with regards to narrowing civic space, 25 million people in Sudan are at risk of hunger and povertyas a result of ongoing conflict which ignited in April 2023. In November 2023, the UN Refugee Agency said it would require almost half a billion dollars for the rising numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in the country.

Nisreen Elsaim is a 2023 Young Activist Summitlaureate born in Sudan who has seen the impact of both conflict and climate change on her home country. Elsaim is the president of Sudan Youth for Climate Change and serves as the chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. Here she shares how witnessing the government’s response to student protests was a catalyst for her choosing to pursue climate activism and diplomacy as her career path.

My name is Nisreen and I am a climate negotiator from Sudan. Sudan was, and still is, an easy going country, like many African countries. We had a great connection with nature. We played outside a lot. We have, compared to Europe and other places around the world, big houses with big yards where we could play with family. The family structure in my home country is very much connected. I grew up in Khartoum, which is the capital, and is where the Niles meet.

There are two Niles, there's the White Nile which comes from Victoria Lake, Uganda, and then enters Sudan from the south. Then there's the Blue Nile, which starts in Tana Lake in Ethiopia and then enters Sudan on the eastern side. They meet in Khartoum in what we call the confluence of the Nile and they move together to the Mediterranean. So we also had this sense of growing by the Nile shores, playing a lot with mud, and being able to identify the surroundings. I really wish everyone could grow up like I did. We also had food that was locally grown, organic, and delicious. However, growing up around such a beautiful environment is not how I ended up in climate change work. It was actually politics.

My entry into climate-related work did not come from me being conscious of the changing environment, to be honest. I did physics in my undergrad, and I always loved science. I was a really science-oriented person, and I believe that science can make our world a better place.

However when I was a freshman in my first year of university, students took to the street against the government to protest against certain decisions. The government was not happy about that, and in response, they sent some of their special forces to the university who hit the students and threw two students from a balcony. It was very violent. I think one of the students passed away and the other one was seriously injured.

I was only in my first year, so this was scary for me. After that I learnt from my older colleagues that this wasn't the first time, and that this was how the government dealt with all of the problems at the university. Subsequently, the university closed for three and a half months, and so I had plenty of time to think. With what had happened still on my mind, I thought about how science can save the world, yet it's not the scientists who are controlling the world. So I asked myself: “How can scientists save the world if no one is listening to them?” I then Googled what can be done and how we can do it, and that’s when I found something called science diplomacy.

Science diplomacy is using science in diplomatic discussions. In science diplomacy, the two biggest topics, according to Google, were climate change and water. I could relate climate change to physics more than I could relate it to water. So I started reading more and more about climate change. This was when I actually realized that climate change exists and that it was impacting people.

The following week I volunteered at one of the local organizations working on the environment in general, not specifically climate change. That was 2012. Since then, I have been doing climate change activism and work. So that’s how politics got me into climate change in the first place.

Interestingly, though, the issue students were protesting about that day was an environmental one. The government decided to build a hydrological dam in the northern area state in Sudan. They removed people from their lands, because behind every dam is a lake, and they had to remove a lot of people from their houses because that area would be flooded with water from the lake. Those removed were farmers and fishermen who depend on the Nile for their livelihood.

However the government took them to a place that was far from the Nile, and it was really hard for them to irrigate their crops and to fish. It was also a problem that they only compensated for people who owned houses. Forexample, if the house was big, they would have four families living there, [after relocation] they didn't give them the same size house, and they also didn't give every family a house. They only gave a house to the person in whose name the original house was.

All the different student unions at the university were talking about this issue, and they decided to deliver a memo to the Ministry of Justice. Unfortunately the demonstration was stopped with teargas and a lot of violence. This is how I started understanding climate change. My introduction to climate change is not what people would typically expect, such as me seeing how the rain stopped coming. I did see rain patterns change, and I saw that there were farmers suffering — however that happened at a later stage after I actually understood climate change theoretically. I then started to get more and more involved with the local communities and the rural areas.

Now, I didn’t understand what science diplomacy was until I actually practiced it. When people go to COPs, for example — meaning the Conference of Parties, the climate change negotiation sessions — most of the people discussing scientific problems there are politicians or government officials. However, climate change is a scientific problem. According to the percentage of the emissions and according to the different readings from the globe, scientists have found that the planet Earth is warming up, and this warming up is causing a lot of effects. But who is discussing this issue? It is not only the scientists. Why? Because when we speak of emissions, we mean oil and gas. When we talk about oil and gas, then it's not only the scientist concerned, it's the businessman, the governments, and it's the private sector. It's the whole financial system, because most of our financial system right now is actually built on oil and gas.

When we also speak about water, it is the politicians and government officials who are discussing who gets what water. And it shouldn't be that way. So what science diplomacy is about is equipping the scientists to be able to do this role. To be able to negotiate, to be able to publicly speak and communicate, to be able to be the politicians at some point, if they succeed. But even if they don't succeed, science diplomacy is about at least having a common ground or a language of understanding between them and the politicians.

When I started doing climate negotiation, it was after several years of working with the people at the grassroots level. Every time I asked my government, for example, “Why is this not happening to/for us”, they said, “Because the negotiation text said X, Y, Z.”

So every time we had a blocked road, I found that the reason for this blockage is mainly a negotiation or what happened at a COP or what happens on the policy level. And so I went to my first COP, only to observe because COP is like a big carnival, you cannot really absorb everything and understand it from the first time. You need to really be able to go and explore and take your time understanding the process before you go into it.

At my second COP I asked the delegation to give me accreditation to be part of the Sudanese formal delegation. Going into the negotiation rooms as part of the Sudan delegation was totally different from going to the negotiation rooms as a civil society observer. The burden of representing the whole country, of 42 million people, I could really feel it while sitting at that table. Before it [the negotiations] was really hard, but it's getting better and better. Decisions normally also have to be taken on a consensus basis. So all of the parties need to agree, and if one party does not agree then it will be really hard to move forward. So the negotiations are not always as easy as it looks from the outside.

Back home, there is war in Sudan currently. The war started on 15 April 2023, so I cannot really say that there is a Sudan right now. I have done some visits to Sudan after fleeing from the war. I have not gone to Khartoum because it was impossible to go there, but I did go to Port Sudan and some of the surrounding areas.

I can tell you that the situation is getting worse and worse. There are weapons everywhere. They are forcing people to be militarized, even young people.

Civic space is getting tighter and tighter. Civil society activists are really facing a hard time doing their work. The government, the army, and intelligencekeep targeting young activists and keep taking them to jail and arresting them with even no charges. They’ve made big lists of people who are not wanted in the country.

And, of course, all of the other topics like climate change, food security, water security and more are not even discussed, because currently people have two interests: winning the war or stopping the war. All of the other issues have gone lower on the list, which is not the best situation. The war is making the climate change situation in Sudan very bad. But how can we talk about climate change when people are expecting that they will be bombed by the air force at any moment? It's always a matter of priorities.

Globally, we are definitely not responding enough to climate change. It is a scientific problem, and needs a scientific solution. But even if we actually have a solution, it will not work because there is no political will to implement it. Therefore we need political will to invest in finding this scientific solution. Scientific solutions need big budgets which we currently don’t have. In general, it's very, very challenging to convince people that we need to stop using fossil fuels. [We need to] focus more on renewable energy, because until now, renewable energy is not producing enough. But also we need to invest in renewable energy and in the technologies of renewable energy so we can get more energy out of it.

As told to Gugulethu Mhlungu, the article has been lightly edited for clarity.

The 2024-2025 In My Own Words Series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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