The thought of potential gains from the construction and operation of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) must be behind the Sudanese refusal to initial the draft agreement prepared by the US Department of the Treasury in collaboration with World Bank experts and behind the reservation lodged by the Sudanese delegation to the Arab League against the Arab foreign ministers’ resolution expressing support for Egypt and Sudan in the crisis surrounding the GERD.
The Sudanese delegation insisted that “Sudan” should be struck from the text of the resolution, thereby voiding it of substance. Clearly, the Sudanese stance bolsters that of Ethiopia, which has refused to sign the Washington agreement. But what, exactly, does Khartoum have to gain?
For one thing, Sudan, which suffers from a 40 per cent deficit in electricity, stands to get cheap energy from the GERD, according to an agreement signed between Khartoum and Addis Ababa during the rule of former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir. For another, the dam will prevent damaging flooding of large tracts of land on either side of the Blue Nile in Sudan, including portions of Khartoum, during the annual flooding seasons. An average of 50 billion m3 of water flows from the Ethiopian highlands through Sudan in the space of only four months at the moment. The dam promises to spread that out across the whole year.
Third, the GERD will hold back the large quantities of silt the Blue Nile carries to Sudanese dams, such as the one at Roseiras, diminishing their electricity production. In addition to alleviating this problem, the GERD will make it possible for the dams to operate all year round instead of for just a few months a year. Fourth, with the regulation of the flow of the Blue Nile through the GERD, Sudan will be able to use its full quota of water under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement with Egypt. Currently, Sudan can only accommodate 15.3 billion m3 of its stipulated 18.5 billion m3 quota because a lot is lost as a result of the speed of the flow during the short flooding season and the evaporation of much of the overflow.
On top of all this Sudan might be considering political gains or, at least, averting political losses. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was instrumental in brokering the agreement between the Forces of Freedom and Change in Sudan, which overthrew the Al-Bashir regime, and the military council that took power after his fall, which resulted in the creation of the current transitional government.
Apparently, too, Khartoum is hoping that the Ethiopian leader will do more to promote a comprehensive agreement with the rebel movements in the Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and Darfur states. The talks between the Sudanese government and those movements, which began some months ago in Juba, have made considerable progress, but an agreement is still out of reach, perhaps in part because the Abdel-Wahid Nour faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement has refused to join the talks. Conversely, even if Ahmed does not help in this regard, Khartoum would want to maintain good relations with Addis Ababa as a means to keep it from supporting Sudanese rebel movements, especially in the Blue Nile and Kordofan states bordering Ethiopia, in the event of disputes surrounding the GERD.
These gains are undeniably important for Sudan. But it could attain them and, simultaneously, maintain good relations with its northern neighbour by refraining from a position that jeopardises Egypt’s acquired historic rights to the Nile waters, virtually its sole source of water.
What would Khartoum have to lose if it put its initials to the final agreement on the GERD, even if it felt the need to register a reservation during the last meeting in Washington, instead of merely falling into line with Addis Ababa’s refusal to sign? What would Khartoum have to lose by agreeing to the Arab League resolution expressing solidarity with the two countries that lie downriver from Ethiopia, supporting the principles of international law and calling on Arab League members to take the necessary measures to persuade Ethiopia to sign the agreement prepared by Washington?
Doesn’t the resolution affirm Sudan’s rights as well as Egypt’s in the face of Ethiopia’s determination to proceed with the construction and operation of the dam in a manner that could jeopardise the welfare of both the Egyptian and Sudanese people? There was nothing unconventional in the resolution, such as a threat of the use of force. It was a declaration of support that Sudan could easily have put its name to, letting Addis Ababa do the job of rejecting it while refraining from angering Egypt and other Arab League members.
Surely Khartoum must realise that Egypt’s indefatigable efforts in its six-year campaign to defend its water rights against Ethiopia’s unilateral actions were not for Egypt’s sake alone, but were for the sake of the Sudanese people as well despite Khartoum’s anti-Egyptian positions under Al-Bashir and its unproductive and sometimes negative positions following the fall of his regime until the US and World Bank stepped in to broker an agreement that would serve the interests of all three countries.
The more Ethiopia is allowed to have its way unilaterally, the greater the threat to both Egypt’s and Sudan’s interests, and the more Ethiopian greed is reined in, the more Egypt and Sudan have to gain. Suffice it to say that Sudan stands to lose half its share of Nile water under the 1959 Agreement because of the GERD. It will also lose the rich silt that has fertilised the lands along the Blue Nile for millennia. And what is to guarantee that Sudan will receive the electricity it bargained for in the event of tensions between Khartoum and Addis?
We can only hope that the discussions that Deputy Chairman of the Sudanese Transitional Sovereign Council Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo held in Cairo last Saturday and Sunday shortly after the talks that Egyptian General Intelligence Director Abbas Kamel held in Khartoum will have resulted in a clearer and more sensible Sudanese position on the GERD.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly