To avoid the damage — drought and flood — that Sudan encountered during last year’s filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) reservoir, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq hinted this week that Khartoum may be willing to accept a partial agreement on this year’s filling, due to begin in a matter of days. It is a step which, as recently as April, Khartoum had rejected alongside Cairo.
At the time both downstream countries demanded a comprehensive, legally binding agreement covering all the operations of the dam, and said Ethiopia’s filling of the reservoir in the absence of such an agreement was “a clear violation of international law” and “a threat to regional security and peace”.
Al-Sadiq said in an interview with Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hadath channel that the partial agreement that Khartoum was considering “had previously been proposed by the AU and is also supported by the US, the EU, and the UN”.
Political analyst Amr Al-Shobaki says there were indications of this partial agreement and that Sudan would likely agree to it.
“The unilateral filling of GERD will impact heaviest on Sudan, and a filling-focused agreement will help Sudan contain the fall-out,” Al-Shobaki told Al-Ahram Weekly. But it would, he warned, be at best a short-term expedient, a postponement of a solution.
Ahmed Al-Mufti, a Sudanese expert on international law, told Al-Ghad TV channel that a partial agreement would be “a catastrophe”, no matter what the conditions Sudan hopes are attached.
“Ethiopia will complete the filling and not abide by the conditions, but it will gain legitimacy, nonetheless,” said Al-Mufti, a participant in the Nile Basin Initiative negotiations held between 1994 and 2012.
Sudan’s foreign minister said any partial agreement must come with four guarantees: commitment to a time limit of six months between the signing of the partial agreement and a final agreement; negotiations picking up from what has been previously agreed rather than starting from scratch; effective international mediation led by the AU and including the US, EU and UN and a clear mechanism to punish any intransigent or procrastinating party.
“The guarantees sound fine in theory, but I would question Ethiopia’s commitment to them given its history of intransigence,” says Al-Shobaki.
Professor of political science Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed doubts that Ethiopia will either commit to the guarantees or show the flexibility needed during the six-month timeframe to reach a final agreement.
“Ethiopia will not accept the quartet of international mediators. Addis Ababa has never wanted the involvement of parties whose support for its position is not assured. Nor is it likely the international parties will accept the guarantees. They are, after all, as keen on their relations with Ethiopia as they are with Egypt and Sudan,” Al-Sayed told the Weekly.
Al-Sayed believes that Sudan’s proposal of a partial agreement will be viewed by Ethiopia as proof that its intransigence has paid off.
Should Ethiopia proceed with a second filling of GERD, its reservoir will hold twice the 7 bcm capacity of the Sudanese Roseires dam which is just 15km away. According to Al-Mufti, Sudan and Egypt will then be in no position to do anything but bend to Ethiopia’s will since Addis Ababa will have effectively built a water bomb.
But will Ethiopia, which is currently holding elections, be more flexible if Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed secures a popular mandate? Al-Sayed predicts there will be no change in its position, and Al-Shobaki believes any change is doubtful.
“It is theoretically possible that Ethiopia’s position will change after the elections, but this depends on pressure being exerted on Addis Ababa,” says Al-Shobaki.
While Al-Shobaki believes that failure to reach a final agreement at the end of the six-month timeframe will still leave the all options open for Egypt and Sudan, Al-Sayed argues by then it will be too late, and GERD will be a fait accompli.
During a meeting with members of the House of Representatives’ Defence and National Security Committee on Monday, Egypt’s Minister of Defence and Military Production Mohamed Zaki stressed that the military “is prepared to carry out tasks assigned to them to protect the homeland against any harm”.
Addis Ababa argues that GERD is a matter of Ethiopian national sovereignty. In April Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti said it was “unacceptable” for Egypt and Sudan to use historical accords setting shares of Nile water as reference points during negotiations.
The Anglo-Ethiopian treaty, signed in 1902 between the United Kingdom, representing Egypt and Sudan, and Ethiopia, represented by emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia, prohibited any Ethiopian construction on the Blue Nile that would affect the river’s natural flow. The same treaty granted sovereignty of the then Sudanese Benishangul region, where Addis Ababa has been building the controversial dam since 2011, to Ethiopia.
“If Ethiopia does not recognise the 1902 treaty, it will be the most affected due to the previous sovereignty of Sudan over the GERD’s region,” Al-Shobaki said.
Following an Egyptian letter to the UN Security Council over the GERD sent earlier this month, Al-Sadiq said on Sunday that Sudan would be sending “within hours” a letter to the UN body to oblige Ethiopia not to proceed with filling its Blue Nile dam without reaching a legal deal with downstream countries.
The one thing the Security Council will propose is a return to the negotiating table, Sudanese expert Ahmed Al-Mufti said, adding that in light of Ethiopia’s procrastination the only pressure tool for bringing Addis Ababa back to talks is Khartoum’s claim for sovereignty over the region on which the GERD is built.
However, according to Al-Shobaki, it is unlikely Sudan can claim its sovereignty over the region in the meantime.