Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas said that his country does not support Egypt or Ethiopia in the current Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam negotiations, because it is a primary party involved in the negotiations and has its own rights to the Nile water.
He also said that the mega-dam offers a lot of potential positive impacts for Khartoum, including ameliorating the effects of flooding and increasing the amount of agricultural land in Sudan.
The Sudanese minister gave an interview via WhatsApp to Egyptian news portal Masrawy on Monday evening. It was his first since Ethiopia withdrew from the latest round of US-sponsored talks in February, which were expected to generate a final deal between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The draft deal, written by the US, which is mediating the talks, was initialled by Egypt but not signed by the other two states.
During the interview, Abbas said that the negotiations “did not collapse” and noted Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s intention to visit Egypt and Ethiopia after the coronavirus outbreak recedes.
Khartoum seeks cooperation between all involved parties to reach a final agreement, he said, and urges the resumption of negotiations.
GERD safety concerns
On Sudan’s support for the construction of the GERD despite safety concerns, the Sudanese minister stressed that safety issues are an integral part of negotiations and no final agreement has yet been reached on this issue.
“There was a draft agreement prepared by the committee consisting of the three parties, and it was negotiated in detail and agreed upon most of its issues, but a few points still need to be further discussed and agreed upon,” Abbas said.
‘Many positive impacts’ from dam
The minister also said that, for Khartoum, the mega-dam offers more pros than cons.
“The number of positive impacts of the GERD are represented by several aspects, the most important of which is the utilisation of our water rights, the increase in the area of irrigated land and the intensification of agriculture in the current areas, as well as the increase in hydroelectric generation.”
The dam will also allow huge sums to be saved that were formerly allocated “to removing the silt from irrigation canals” and will “eliminate the negative impacts of floods,” Abbas said.
The Sudanese official said that his country also seeks to minimise the negative impacts of the GERD and transform them into benefits, referring to plans for converting flood irrigation areas into permanent irrigation, in addition to enhancing river navigation, including transportation, tourism, as well as other sectors.
Responding to a query as to whether the mega-dam is located in an area of earthquake and volcanic activity, Abbas said this possibility is “very weak,” explaining the dam is more than 540 kilometres from the nearest seismic activity or volcanic activity point and that it was built on stable granite.
“The percentage possibility of breakdown or collapse is almost non-existent according to its design and the implementation of the latest data and technology for building dams available globally at present,” Abbas said.
Asked about any climate change effects that may occur due to the construction of the dam, the minister said that such changes are only a result of global influences and not of limited projects such as the construction of reservoirs, stressing that there is no regional impact on the Aswan High Dam region as a result of the GERD reservoir.
Returning to the negotiation table
On his country’s stance toward the resumption of GERD negotiations, the Sudanese minister said Khartoum will exert every possible effort as a primary involved party.
“Sudan has rights to the Nile water and doesn’t seek to play a mediating role,” Abbas said, confirming that Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok planned to visit Egypt and Ethiopia after the end of the current coronavirus outbreak crisis.
The Sudanese minister totally dismissed any contradictions between the stances of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council and the government, stressing that the issue of GERD negotiations remains within the competence of the state’s executive branch, which is the Sudanese Council of Ministers.
Sudan’s expectations of coming negotiations
“The negotiation course didn’t collapse and we [Sudan] expect its resumption very soon,” the minister said.
A few points remain unsolved and require a final and decisive agreement, he said.
“Negotiations will resume as soon as possible, especially after Prime Minister Hamdok’s latest contact with Washington and his intention to visit Cairo and Ethiopia to push the involved parties to resume talks, but the coronavirus pandemic and current travel conditions may have delayed this step,” said Abbas.
“There is a draft agreement drawn up by the three-party panel in coordination with the US Treasury and the World Bank, and a few items of the agreement remain to be agreed,” he added.
“There was information on an Egyptian signing, but Sudan was clear at the last meeting at the end February, which is that there is no point in partially signing a draft agreement that has not been fully detailed or outlined,” he said, affirming that his country had made constructive proposals that could achieve the aspirations of the three countries, according to the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum in March 2015, and the principles of international law.
''Sudan stresses the necessity of resuming negotiations as soon as possible and is fully prepared for this step,” the Sudanese minister added.
Reasons for delay
Abbas also said that issues related to international water rights are usually complicated and sensitive, due to each country’s determination to make the maximum benefit from water resources, especially with the increasing need for water and population growth challenges. Therefore, he said, negotiations between countries on such issues often take a long time.
Abbas said he holds “no specific party” accountable for the current stall in the negotiations.
“For instance, the Mekong River Water agreement in Asia, which includes only four countries [Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand] took more than twenty years to negotiate a preliminary agreement,” Abbas said.
“What we do know is that the three parties [to the GERD] understand the urge to reach a comprehensive and final agreement on the first filling and then the annual operation of the dam,” the minister added.
He said he expected a final agreement on the GERD to be reached soon, depending on all parties involved.
Sudan's decision not to sign the draft deal
“There is no complete agreement between the three parties to be signed,” said Abbas about Sudan’s decision not to sign the agreement in February.
“There was a draft agreement prepared by the committee composed of the three parties, and most of its items were negotiated and agreed upon at the penultimate meeting in mid-February in Washington, but a few other points needed more discussion at the last meeting on 27 and 28 February, which Ethiopia did not partake in, and therefore these points were not negotiated at all,” Abbas said.
“Rather, Sudan presented observations according to the agreement in the previous meeting our stance was clear in this regard as stated in our statement, which is to not sign except within the agreement of the three involved parties,” he added.
The minister affirmed that Sudan had submitted its observations to the draft according to the agreement of the mid-February meeting, during which all parties submit their observations on issues that have not been agreed upon, noting that the last meeting did not involve any negotiation process, due to the absence of one of the three negotiating parties.
“Sudan's position on signing has been clear and consistent since the beginning of these negotiations, viewing negotiations as trilateral, and therefore any agreement should be agreed upon and signed by the three parties,” he said.
Accusations of inclining toward the Ethiopian side
At a meeting of the three countries’ delegations in Cairo in December, Sudan presented a proposal on the first filling and annual operation of the mega-dam. However, a month later, some amendments were made to the proposal, described by some experts as inclining toward Ethiopian interests.
“Sudan at that meeting presented an integrated proposal on the annual filling and operation of the Renaissance Dam, and then other countries presented their proposals as expected in any negotiation process. Some adjustments were made here and there to reach a point that could be agreed upon," the Sudanese minister said.
“We didn’t want to dig deep into the technical details of the proposal, but generally it covers filling and operating during the different hydrological scenarios for the Blue Nile,” Abbas said.
“The proposal also covers the safety of operation and thus the integrity of Sudanese dams, the mechanism for exchanging data on daily operations, and the mechanism for conflict resolution if it occurs,” the Sudanese minister said.
"There are some dissenting voices that do not agree with most of the Sudanese government and people, but these opinions do not rely on any scientific studies and are fed by information provided by counter media that are against the progress and development of Sudan," Abbas said.
“The ministry would like to make it clear to them that ‘the Sudan of the revolution’ is completely free of these restrictions and influences and will work to benefit from all its resources in accordance with Sudan’s interests and within the terms of international water law,” he added.
“On the contrary, the Sudanese public has always been supportive of our negotiating stance, which seeks to protect Sudan’s strategic interests.”
The Arab League resolution controversy
In a statement on 8 March, Egypt's foreign ministry expressed disappointment at a statement issued by the Sudanese foreign minister concerning Khartoum’s reservations to an Arab League resolution supporting Egypt in its dispute with Ethiopia over the GERD.
“This resolution didn’t serve Sudan’s interests and the current negotiation course, rather, it creates problems between Arab and African countries and abolishes the principle of cooperation adopted by Sudan in accordance with laws managing international waters’, the Sudanese minister commented.
Last Month, Sudanese Sovereignty Council member Siddiq Tawer said his country’s stance on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been “misunderstood,” saying that Khartoum has sought to take into account the interests of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan when dealing with the issue.
Earlier this month, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that his country would starting the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam this coming rainy season, as the construction of the dam is progressing well, according to Ethiopia's state news agency ENA.
Ethiopia’s rainy season normally begins in June.
Abiy made the remarks on the ninth anniversary of the start of construction on the GERD, which commenced in 2011.
Egypt, which is downstream from the dam, fears that the project will diminish its share of Nile water, on which it is almost entirely reliant for fresh water.
The US stepped in to host negotiations in November after the three countries announced that talks had reached a dead-end, and after Egypt asked for an international mediator.
However, the three countries were expected to sign a final deal on the GERD in late February, when the last meeting was scheduled to be held, but Ethiopia skipped the meetings, citing incomplete domestic discussions.
Egypt initialled the deal and called on Ethiopia and Sudan to do the same.
Egypt has accused Ethiopia of "deliberately" impeding the course of negotiations, and the US Department of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said following the 28 February meeting that “the final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement.”