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Past In Memoriam
Mahmoud El Zain Hamid
Ross Ryan
September 25, 2011
A reflection on the life and scholarship of Mahmoud El Zain Hamid (1963-2011), reviewing some of his major works and providing a selected bibliography for further reading.

admit all

Mahmoud El Zain Hamid was a brilliant thinker and inspiring teacher who took delight in lively dialogue and discussion, particularly when unconventional points of view and deep theoretical insights were involved. A man of wisdom, Dr Hamid will long be remembered by his colleagues for both his powerful critical intellect, and his humble, kind, and generous spirit.

Dr Hamid’s many research interests centred around Sudan, the country of his birth, and his firm conviction that all people are worthy of respect, dignity, and a position of power in the decision making processes that shape their lives – as well as his sharp criticism of the narrow and often destructive interests of political, economic, and religious elites. The potential realization of these ethics often took the form of a phrase he was fond of using: “a decent human society.”   

His doctoral dissertation, accepted in 2007 by the Institute of Social Studies in The Netherlands, carefully analyses the causes and implications of water scarcity in the Sudan, demonstrating forcefully that socio-political factors, and not simple population growth or reduced water flow, have created scarcity where there ought to be (and once was) water abundance. In Dr Hamid’s words:

[…] water scarcity in the Sudan is caused by structural inequalities between groups of actors and regions, initiated and enforced through administrative, legal, and spatial regulations and economic development policies, particularly in stimulating large-scale resource capture and, therefore, causing ecological marginalisation. Water scarcity is largely caused by the way power is being played out – how the geopolitical importance of the Nile is conceived, how political alliances are formed in association with modern irrigation, and how agricultural lobbies influence the issues of land use, distribution, and conservation.     

Among the many strengths of this argument, for me, is Dr Hamid’s use of spatial concepts, borrowed from physical and social geography, credited to Frédéric Roulier, and used to demonstrate how the political manipulation of territory and landscape – through the appreciation of privately controlled lands over communally owned areas, for example – has had measurable consequences on many social and economic issues, including the creation of scarcity and marginalization, and the direction of migration and settlement patterns.

Perhaps even more intriguing is his emphasis on the importance of conceptualization itself – how the way reality is perceived interacts with the way reality is created, a relationship he explores in his dissertation through a detailed analysis of the ideologies behind the creation of the Sudanese state, the distribution of power within it, and the unfolding of its modern history.

Along with his creative use of many other concepts from environmental security and political ecology, as well as post-modern philosophy, this line of inquiry characterizes much of his work as a resident faculty member in the department of environment, peace and security at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

Keenly aware of the tensions and paradoxes inherent to interdisciplinary studies of social and environmental interactions, Dr Hamid opened one of his public lectures at UPEACE with the following statement, typical of his comfort at the frontier areas of intellectual discussion, where theories may interact unpredictably, as well as his talent for organizing and presenting such arguments in a clear and compelling way, so as to best reach his audience:

We [in the department of environment, peace and security] are doing peace and conflict studies, too; however, from an environmental perspective.

The concepts of security and peace represent the persistent human striving towards achieving a decent human society. The very existence of the two concepts also points at something wrong—that security and peace are lacking or not existing. The concepts of environmental security and environmental peace were part of this persistent struggle to achieve a decent human society.

In other words, when we discuss environmental security and environmental peace, we are actually approaching security and peace from an environmental perspective. Some scholars see that this is important because it brings on board an important component that is crucial for achieving peace. Others go beyond this and argue that emphasizing the environment leads to a paradigm shift in the conceptualization of security.

In fact these two currents are important for us to know. In order to have clarity about this I should first define: what do we mean by security and peace? After this, we should be able to see whether adding “environment” would mean something different or not and whether the concepts of environmental security and environmental peace make sense.

As a professor, Dr Hamid was thoughtful and thorough, careful to ensure that his students were intellectually stimulated and always open to and encouraging of the alternative arguments they presented. Education became a central preoccupation of his, and Dr Hamid began to design and participate in workshops and curricula development projects with many organizations and universities, but especially through the UPEACE Africa Programme and the UPEACE Central Asia Programme where, in his words, he sought to implement “educational instruments and methodologies for building human capacities and spreading a culture of peace.”    

Despite his dedication to teaching, however, Dr Hamid was a research-oriented academic at heart and contributed prolifically to the discourse surrounding the currents of his intellectual curiosity. In a 2006 article, ‘The political potential of displacement to urban areas: How has the “ethnic discourse” transformed the culturally polarized milieu in the Sudan?’, Dr Hamid returns to the topic of internal migration within the Sudan, especially to Khartoum and other northern cities along the Blue Nile, which is a trend he often discusses in relation to water scarcity, livelihood insecurity, and the civil wars that resulted from the failed policies of the central government, and which disproportionately affected communities located in the broader, non-riverine zones of the Sudan.

In this paper, Dr Hamid describes how the massive resettlement of rural or tribal communities to urban areas, particularly since the early 1980s, reshaped the political discourse of Sudanese elites – first by undercutting the founding “modernist” ideology of the state and replacing it with an “ethnic” discourse masked in religious rhetoric and manipulated as a source of political power, and then, more optimistically, by complicating that same ethnic discourse as more voices began to emerge and demand political representation, potentially laying the groundwork for a pluralistic future of Sudanese governance.      

One of Dr Hamid’s great accomplishments at UPEACE was the establishment of an MA programme wholly dedicated to scholarship on the dynamics of peace and security as they relate to urban areas, including but reaching far beyond Khartoum, the subject of so much of his research. A portion of the programme description states:

Major cities around the world face a number of risks posed by overcrowding, pollution, disease, poverty, food insecurity, rising sea levels, increased storm intensity, heat waves, urban decay, sprawl, disconnect with nature, urbicide, gang warfare, and human trafficking, among others. In addition to internal rural-urban migration, many cities of the world are also experiencing the impact of mass transnational migration. While this may contribute to the flourishing cultural diversity of cities, it can also generate confrontations and pose serious challenges to urban authorities. All of this is compounded by the rapid rate at which urbanization continues to occur.

In a remarkable chapter written for a 2008 textbook on International Water Security published by United Nations University, Dr Hamid expands the scope of his research on the concentration of the Sudanese population in the riverine zone (especially around Khartoum) to show how the impacts of this change – particularly the creation of water scarcity in Sudan, and its resulting increase in reliance on Nile water – has raised the level of concern and militant posturing of Egypt towards its upstream neighbours.

Along the way, the chapter touches on the earlier shift in Sudanese settlement patterns away from Turkish and later British administrative centres of power, issues of irrigation and food security, and the vast rift between upstream and downstream cultures – predicting the separation of southern Sudan. The discussion culminates with an insightful commentary on Egyptian and Sudanese history, placing the relatively recent international tension in the context of Sudan’s longstanding north/south divide, the common interests of Egyptian and north Sudanese elites, and the contested hydropolitical ideology of a unified Nile River Valley.

Of course, Dr Hamid followed the subsequent division of Sudan closely, and responded with his characteristic mix of cautious optimism and critical thought. While acknowledging that the separation brings an opportunity for a new future, and some measure of distance for the southern Sudanese from the “cruel government in the north”, as he mentions in an interview with the Tico Times, Dr Hamid also noted the on-going violence with great concern, kept his eye squarely on the various elites involved, both regionally and from “the international community”, received the dominant religious and political rhetoric uneasily, and pointed out that the conceptualization of Sudan’s rich oil and water resources continue to be embedded in the same state-centric, geostrategic way of thinking that created the problem in the first place.

Dr Mahmoud El Zain Hamid’s death is a loss that will be felt deeply by those of us who knew him personally, as well as the many people who he has reached through his life’s work of scholarship. For all those who share Dr Hamid’s passion for engaging with the debates that surround concepts of peace and security, development, scarcity, nature and society, I highly recommend a greater exploration of his work.

A partial bibliography of Dr Mahmoud El Zain Hamid’s published academic works.

Mahmoud El Zain. (1996) “Tribe and Religion in the Sudan”, in Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 23, No. 70, December 1996, pp. 523-529.

Mahmoud El Zain. (1999) “The Place of the ‘Political’ in Sustainable Development Discourse: An Inquiry on Global Equity and the Political Potential of Environmental Risks”, Working Paper, Institute of Advanced Studies, United Nations University, Tokyo.

Rongchao Li, Mahmoud El Zain, and Eelco Van Beek (2003) “Transboundary Water Allocation in the Yellow River and the Nile River: A Comparative Analysis on Water Scarcity and Institutional Aspects”, Proceeding of The 1st International Yellow River Forum on River Basin Management, 2003, p 472-483, volume IV, ISBN:7-80621-676-6

Mahmoud El Zain. (2006a) “Reshaping the ‘Political’: the Nile waters of the Sudan” in T. Tvedt & R. Coopey (eds.) A History of Water: Vol. II The Political Economy of Water, London: I.B.Tauris. Pp. 117-150.

Mahmoud El Zain. (2006b) “The political potential of displacement to urban areas: How has the ‘ethnic discourse’ transformed the culturally polarized milieu in the Sudan?” Peace and Conflict Review, (July 2006) Issue No. 1; available online at:

Mahmoud El Zain. (2006c) “Urbanization and Environment in Sudan”, Afriche E Orienti, (2006) (1/2): 94-101.

Mahmoud El Zain. (2006d) “Ruling elite, frontier-cast ideology and resource conflicts in the Sudan”, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, Vol.3 (1): 36-46.

Mahmoud El Zain. (2007) Environmental Scarcity, Hydropolitics, and the Nile: Population Concentration, Water Scarcity and the Changing Domestic and Foreign Politics of the Sudan, Shaker, Maastricht.

Mahmoud El Zain. (2008) “Peoples’ encroachment onto Sudan’s Nile banks and its impact on Egypt” in International Water Security: Domestic Threats and Opportunities, edited by Nevelina Pachova, Mikiyasu Nakayama, and Libor Jansky, United Nations University Press, Tokyo.


Ross Ryan was (and continues to be) a student of Dr Hamid. He is also Editor of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.