Renewable energy could rid South Sudan of dependence on oil

As the least electrified country in the world, South Sudan’s energy sector is complex and closely tied to the cycle of conflict, and the country’s cursed dependence on oil. While some efforts are underway or planned to rehabilitate local electrical grids, purchase power from neighboring countries, or invest in hydroelectricity, these are limited and unlikely to deliver significant change. Distributed solar minigrids represent the most achievable and scalable renewableenergy source in this context, but the political and economic context makes new investment in this sector highly challenging outside of Juba. Yet as UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) pursues its own renewable-energy transition in service of the UNSCAP (UN Secretariat Climate Action Plan) goals, and amid wider global commitments toward mitigating climate change, the situation presents a unique opportunity for UNMISS and its other international and national partners to support the development of a new, more sustainable, and widely accessible electricity infrastructure in the country.

Currently, South Sudan’s limited electricity sector is almost entirely dependent on diesel-powered generators. Apart from the obvious climatic concerns around carbon emissions associated with such high diesel consumption, the imports and supply chains for diesel in South Sudan also invite a plethora of other problems. The diesel supply chains are highly exposed to external fluctuations and global shocks that are entirely beyond the control of people in South Sudan, and yet impact the pricing for all consumers dramatically, contributing to pushing costs for dieselpowered electricity untenably high for the vast majority. Moreover, as a result of the reduction in oil revenue, South Sudan’s supply of the USD required to purchase diesel is increasingly insufficient.

Although the GoSS’s monopoly on diesel imports has lessened in recent years, this sector still provides a window of opportunity for corruption, financial diversion, or extortion, all the way from the local-level officials on the border at Nimule, up to the leadership level of those who participate in grand corruption through the awarding of diesel-import contracts. Moreover, as diesel is moved around the country, all users – including UNMISS and other humanitarian agencies that are supposedly operating in a self-contained system – fall prey to the almost innumerable checkpoints that litter key transport routes, and the payments exacted at these checkpoints in turn serve to finance South Sudan’s disproportionately large, disjointed, and unwieldy security sector and other armed elements. This perpetuates a status quo of chronic insecurity and militarization, and poses an additional layer of challenges for ordinary citizens, humanitarian agencies, and the private sector who seek stability and development. Indeed, South Sudan’s diminishing oil revenues will likely mean that the checkpoint economy is not going anywhere, as non-oil resources – such as the diesel sector and other goods that can be charged heavily at checkpoints – will likely come to play an ever more important role in financing the conflict and political interests.

For ordinary South Sudanese, especially those who have been displaced and live in UNMISS PoC sites or IDP camps, as well as those who reside in the urban areas where the conflict has wrought the most destruction, such as Malakal and Bentiu, access to electricity represents a crucial entry point for moving forward, regenerating, and rebuilding. Large-scale returns for the IDP communities remain a somewhat distant prospect because of conflictdriven destruction and environmental damage.

Amid this reality, investing in systems to provide electricity to South Sudanese, including IDP settlements, PoC sites, and adjacent towns, using means that are environmentally conscious, protected from global and national shocks to pricing and supply, and do not play into the hands of local conflict actors, could be a concrete, pragmatic, and more long-term approach to supporting peace dividends countrywide. Yet, at present, areas such as Bentiu, Malakal, and most of the country are currently far away from receiving this kind of support, as the vast majority of development and infrastructural efforts, including for electricity, are limited to Juba or for internal use by certain institutions.

While oil plays a complex but well recognized and central role in South Sudan’s conflict dynamics, the role of electrification is often overlooked despite its centrality to nearly all development goals. The international community continues to play an outsized role in the country, primarily via UNMISS and humanitarian aid, but is grappling for a coherent long-term strategy amid a largely stagnant peace agreement. There is little effort or investment going toward supporting energy access or electrification; barring a change in approach, there is every reason to believe that South Sudan will remain the least electrified country in the world for the foreseeable future. Access to electricity for South Sudanese people remains dependent on access to diesel fuel, with all the complications and negative externalities that come with it.

In parallel, UNMISS continues its own transition to renewable energy in the country, as it rushes to meet the UN’s own climate goals. The UN and UNMISS have made slow progress in this regard in recent years, but still lack a system to support this transition at scale. At the same time, UNMISS represents South Sudan’s best hope in the near term for a clean energy transition. This presents challenges, and would require new thinking and approaches from both UNMISS and other international partners, as well as the GoSS. However, it is worth pursuing and can present a new, high-impact model to help both missions as well as host governments in fragile states like South Sudan greatly increase local energy access.


Excerpt of: Renewable Energy and the United Nations: A Green Spark For Peace in South Sudan (The Stimson Center, 2023)

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