Evolution Institute Projects

The Future of the Sudd

The Sudd wetland is potentially the greatest economic asset in South Sudan. Unlike the country's rapidly dwindling petroleum resources, the wetland, if properly managed, could provide sustainable income, jobs, and ecosystem services indefinitely.

The Future of the Sudd Outputs
The Future of the Sudd


The Sudd wetland is one of the world’s most unique and valuable ecosystems. It is threatened by a variety of development pressures, ranging from small-scale drainage and water diversion to a plan to almost completely drain the wetland for agriculture downstream. These pressures illustrate how economic and political drivers can lead to the destruction of a valuable and irreplaceable ecosystem and majorly disrupt the cultures that have thrived there for centuries. The case of the Sudd also illustrates the need for a broader and more refined approach to development and the environment. Both economic and environmental concerns can be addressed by understanding of the importance of large ecosystems, pointing the way to more balanced, nuanced, long-term policies.

The key to all human use of ecosystems is maintaining the supporting functions described by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as “those that are necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services, such as primary production, production of oxygen, and soil formation.” These functions are the basic biophysical life-support systems of the planet that make all other functions, indeed life itself, possible. Supporting functions make possible economic functions, including the products directly obtained from ecosystems such as food and fiber, fuel, medicines, and fresh water (collectively referred to as “market” and “quasi-market” goods and services by economists). Integrating supporting functions into economic theory and policy frameworks is not an easy task. Sustaining the supporting functions of the world’s biophysical systems implies maintaining them intact, preserving their evolutionary potential to adjust to large and sudden changes.

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Photo credit: Yann Arthus-Bertrand, www.yannarthusbertrand2.org

In this project, we explore some of the theoretical and practical issues involved in valuing the natural world in general and the Sudd wetland in particular. In our monetary estimates of the value of the Sudd, we focus on economic value, but we take a broad view by incorporating new developments in economic theory and policy. In particular, we use findings from behavioral economics, behavioral science, institutional economics, and new approaches from evolutionary economics and evolutionary biology to broaden the scope of “value” beyond market or quasi-market values. The Sudd wetland in South Sudan offers an excellent case study of the challenges and opportunities of ecosystem valuation. The Sudd is an area of immense biological, cultural and economic importance. The conflicts there between different visions of valuation, and, by implication, different visions of development, could not be sharper; they starkly illuminate the consequences of policy decisions that are sometimes hard to see in more developed economies.


The valuation of the Sudd was conducted by Dr. John Gowdy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Dr. Hannes Lang, an environmental consultant. They gratefully recognize the support of the United Nations Environment Programme.