Although Khartoum has repeatedly underlined that negotiations are the best way to resolve outstanding differences over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Sudan has also refused to participate further in talks if the methodology remains unchanged and African Union (AU) experts attending the talks are not given more opportunity to help bridge differences between the parties.
Sudan has twice withdrawn from the AU-mediated talks called by South Africa, the current chair of the AU, claiming the existing negotiating approach has rendered the talks redundant.
The first withdrawal, last November, resulted in a six-week hiatus in negotiations.
Talks resumed earlier this month with a six-party ministerial meeting. It was supposed to be followed by trilateral technical talks until Sudan withdrew for a second time.
“Had Sudan taken a clear stand from the beginning the situation would have been far better now. It says repeatedly that it is seeking a legally binding agreement, which begs the question why Sudan did not sign the agreement reached last February during the Washington brokered negotiations,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. In February 2020, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan were scheduled to sign an agreement that had been months in the making. When Ethiopia failed to show up at the signing ceremony Sudan withheld its signature, saying it would wait until Ethiopia signed the accord.
Nader Noureddin, professor of soil and water sciences at the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University, praised Khartoum’s recent stand. “It has declared that it is no longer willing to prolong these absurd negotiations that have lasted for 10 years and led nowhere, and is asking for a bigger role for international observers,” he said.
To explain Sudan’s position a series of meetings was held this week with foreign ambassadors in Khartoum, including those of UN Security Council member states. The meetings were an attempt to lobby the international community to adopt a more active role in preventing Ethiopia from embarking on a second filling of the dam reservoir without first reaching an agreement with Cairo and Khartoum.
Sudanese Minister of Resources and Irrigation Yasser Abbas explained the reasoning behind Khartoum’s diplomatic drive to encourage “the international community to shoulder its responsibility to halt Ethiopian threats to the lives of half of Sudan’s population in the Blue Nile”, according to the weekly news bulletin issued by his ministry. He also confirmed that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a direct threat to the Rossaires reservoir which has a storage capacity less than 10 per cent that of GERD.
While Abbas stressed that “war is not an option”, he added that this “vicious cycle of discussions [of tripartite negotiations] cannot be continued indefinitely”.
He concluded by sending a message to Ethiopia: Sudan will not allow the filling and operation of the dam without a binding legal agreement that guarantees the safety of the dam and the lives of Sudanese citizens.
Last week’s discussions also included a meeting between Abbas and the ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). DRC will succeed South Africa as AU chair.
In a related development Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati blamed the failure of dam negotiations on Ethiopian intransigence.
Meeting with MPs this week, Abdel-Ati explained how Addis Ababa’s stubbornness had prevented an agreement being concluded during the tripartite negotiations that were first brokered by the US and then by the AU.
Four rounds of meetings have been held under AU supervision so far, as well as five meetings between the Ministers of Irrigation and Foreign Affairs of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, but “Ethiopia’s intransigence led all of the meetings to fail.”
Abdel-Ati explained to MPs that 97 per cent of Egypt’s water comes from outside the country. “Egypt needs 114 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water every year to meet its population and development needs. We have 80 bcm from local resources, including the Nile and desalination stations, and a further 20 bcm from water recycling projects.”
Just as the dam crisis seems to be entering a deadlock the escalation of tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia over the contested, and highly fertile, border area of Al-Fashqa, is throwing up additional obstacles.
The Sudanese army repelled a missile attack launched by Ethiopia on Abu Toyour Mountain on Sunday. No injuries were reported but tensions persist, and Sudan is likely to respond.
In November the Sudanese army stationed troops along Al-Fashqa border area after reclaiming land that had been cultivated by Ethiopian farmers since 1995. Sudan and Ethiopia formed a joint committee in December to resolve the long-standing dispute over the area but there are few, if any, signs of progress.
Further complicating the picture are reports that an estimated 50,000 Ethiopians have fled the war in the Tigray region and are now housed in refugee camps in eastern Sudan. The Sudanese government has moved many of them away from the border for security reasons.
“The border conflict, coupled with Ethiopian aggression towards Sudanese land,” says Noureddin, “has made Khartoum realise that Addis Ababa’s expansionist policies are a threat, and its claims that GERD will benefit Sudan is a lie.”
The failure to reach a compromise in the tripartite talks and escalating border tensions have led to growing calls for international interventions.
The two issues topped UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s agenda during his visit last week to Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, is far from optimistic that outside attempts to resolve the differences between Ethiopia and its two downstream neighbours will bear fruit.
“Addis Ababa has resisted any foreign mediation except the AU’s in the past and it is unlikely to accept any now,” he said.
Sharaki holds out some hope that Congo may be able to play a more active role when it starts its chairmanship of the AU next month though he points out that “Egypt has not yet declared whether it will continue with the AU-mediated talks or take the issue to the UNSC again.”
As a Nile-basin state Congo is aware of the complexities of the dam issue and the water problems Egypt suffers, says Noureddin, and therefore may be in a position to help “if Egypt and Sudan do not decide to take the case to the UN”.
The dam, 15km from the Ethiopian border with Sudan, has been a source of contention between the three countries since construction began in 2011. The first filling of the dam’s reservoir took place last summer despite the absence of a binding agreement, a move that angered Cairo and Khartoum, both of whom saw it as a violation of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in March 2015. The DoP states that the three countries must first agree on guidelines and rules for the operating process of the dam before filling the reservoir can start.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.