The lie of the land: Mapping the borders of South Sudan has been fraught with difficulty

Six months before South Sudan officially declared its independence, becoming the world's newest nation on 9 July, eight people met in an unremarkable boardroom in Glasgow over tea and biscuits to plot one of this fledgling country's most defining features – its borders.

Setting up a country is no mean feat. The new currency, the South Sudan pound, was unveiled at banks across its capital, Juba, this week. The national anthem, written by competition winners who now ascribe to the new nationality of South Sudanese, is being learnt in classrooms across the country. And South Sudan's internet-domain suffix is still being debated (an alternative to ".ss" needs to be found – apparently it carries too much Nazi baggage in Europe).

However, unlike those who governed the decision-making processes for these stately accoutrements, the people at that meeting in drizzly Glasgow were not freshly appointed South Sudanese officials, members of Africa's governing bodies, or international diplomats. In fact, many of them had never even been to Sudan.

Instead, these boardroom attendees were British cartographers, experts in geopolitical policy, and members of the Collins Geo division of Harper Collins, the publishing company responsible for creating and selling one of the most authoritative reference maps in circulation, The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World.

In the many hours that passed, they would attempt to define South Sudan's borders for a new issue of the atlas to be published in September – a task easier said than done. They would need to draw up a finalised map of South Sudan to meet their publishing deadline in May, despite the fact the country itself would not yet officially exist. They would need to commit to a boundary line between Sudan and South Sudan, despite the fact that areas of that border continue to be violently disputed.

How can you map out a country when that country doesn't exist yet? And how do you set down a new international border when it is fiercely contested? The short answer, according to the people who do it, is: you take a lot of risks. And you hold a lot more meetings.

The first question for debate was whether to include South Sudan in the new map at all. "A key visual confirmation that a country has been accepted into the global order it is its presence on a map," says Mick Ashworth, consultant cartographic editor for Collins Geo, who provides "an independent eye over editorial issues" at meetings such as the one in Glasgow, and cut his cartographic teeth 30 years ago with a stint working within the Ministry of Defence's mapping arm.

The answer to that question was not as clear cut as a simple yes or no. "In the case of South Sudan, there was a risk that the [declaration of] independence could have been postponed or cancelled after we went to print. We also had to figure out whether South Sudan would become a truly independent country. Many regions around the world, such as South Ossetia, declare their independence and function fairly independently, but aren't recognised internationally as a country.

"It was a difficult balance. We did not want the atlas coming out in September, with everybody knowing about the new country, but the atlas not showing that new country. We wanted to be one of the first atlases out there to depict [South Sudan] as it really is, so we had to take a chance."

These decisions would not only have had consequences for the atlas's sales figures. The atlas and its related products are used as key reference tools by governments, the United Nations, the World Bank, aid agencies and classrooms across the globe, according to Ashworth. The pressure, he says, was certainly felt.

Some would say this risk was minimal because the process that had led to independence was laid out in fairly solid diplomatic pacts. In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement formally ended decades of civil war between Sudan's mostly Muslim North and its Christian and animist South, during which time two million people were killed and more than four million Southern Sudanese people were displaced. The treaties laid down plans for a referendum on independence to be held in Southern Sudan in January, which produced an overwhelming result in favour of the split and was recognised internationally by the UK, US and European governments, and the United Nations. These, not the Sudanese government, were the major go-to bodies for guidance on policy for Ashworth and his team, one of whom has "close insight" into the views of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Ashworth says the committee was sure that South Sudan's external international borders would reflect those already in place in Southern Sudan. They could rely on past maps and ground surveys to depict the physical state of the country. But their main challenge would be plotting the politics of the contentious new boundary between Sudan and Southern Sudan.

Sudan's authorities managed to agree that the new border would be drawn along existing administrative boundaries, but many regions of this border remain disputed. The new atlas will acknowledge the disputed region of Abyei, where 1,000 Ethiopian troops, deployed by the UN Security Council, arrived this week in an attempt to keep a level of peace. But it will not acknowledge the struggle in Sudan's Nuba mountains, close to the newly redrawn border, where many of the Nuba people still believe in the vision of a democratic and united Sudan propagated by the late Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) leader, John Garang.

During the past six weeks, the Sudanese army has attempted to eliminate any remaining SPLA members within its new borders through a relentless bombing campaign which has forced more than 73,000 people to flee their homes, according to UN estimates. The atlas will also ignore the small, but often violent, land disputes which pepper the oil-rich regions of the newly drawn border.

"It isn't possible to take all border disputes into account, mainly because of the scale we work on," says Ashworth. "Where a new boundary is created, and a new country, there will always be small-scale disputes along it. There will always be villages along that boundary line – it happened after the Second World War – where people don't really know which country they belong in. But the boundary line needs to go somewhere and as large-scale mapping is not a top priority in Sudan at the moment, the administrative lines are as accurate as we can get."

To achieve that level of accuracy, Ashworth and the committee rely on a team of around six news-gatherers to monitor constantly the geopolitical developments to help to inform their decisions, and ultimately, the authoritative depiction of nations. They carefully examine the projections of the UN, international governments, aid agencies, geopolitical experts on the ground, and specialist academic institutions such as the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University.

Despite this vast amount of fact-finding, Peter Barber, head of maps at the British Library, once said that a map is, essentially, a lie. "Unless you have a scale of one-to-one, every map is subjective, and always will be," he explained. "You have to select what you put on it." Mick Ashworth agrees. "Maps are a very powerful tool for presenting an agenda and propaganda," he says. "People often believe maps more than what they see in the real world. But we are aware of that, and we are aware that if we get things wrong, or don't represent things in the way that they should be, then we will hear about it."

When The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World is published in September, the risks Ashworth and his team took will probably have paid off. They got the name right (the Republic of South Sudan, to use its full name may have been called Azania, Nile Republic and Kush Republic). They were right to depict it as fully independent. And its version of the international borders depicted for printed posterity, will probably be as accurate as they can be.

"Yes, [the map] is a lie," says Ashworth. "But with as much truth and as much neutrality in it as possible."