The fighting in Sudan could encourage Ethiopia to continue to ignore negotiation efforts over GERD (photo: AFP)
As Sudan’s rival military forces continued fighting for the third week, leading to a deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country, commentators are worried the chaos will encourage Ethiopia to continue to ignore negotiation efforts over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Former deputy foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi argues that Sudan’s position over the dam does not boil down to either standing with Egypt or against Ethiopia but is a considered response to maintaining its own interests as a downstream state.
“Khartoum may be temporarily distracted by recent events but that will not stop it from looking at its geographical priorities and cooperating with Egypt as a fellow downstream state,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Other analysts are less optimistic. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fighting in Sudan may have devastating effect on Khartoum and contribute to destabilising the already volatile region. “I expect that Sudan will be occupied for some time with its domestic problems. Other issues will not be a priority,” he said.
He pointed out that Sudan’s stance on GERD had never been consistent. Khartoum initially opposed the project, but earlier this year Sudanese leader Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan said Khartoum and Addis Ababa were “aligned and in agreement” vis-à-vis the controversial dam which Egypt views as a threat.
Al-Burhan’s remarks came during a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who was on a one-day visit to Khartoum, his first since Al-Burhan led a 2021 military coup.
“Al-Burhan emphasised... that Sudan and Ethiopia are aligned and in agreement on all issues regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” according to a statement by the Sovereign Council, which Al-Burhan chairs. Yet on the sidelines of the China-Arab Summit held in the Saudi capital Riyadh in December last year, Al-Burhan was insisting on the need to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, something Addis Ababa has consistently refused to do.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, argues that the latest confrontations in Sudan are likely to silence the already weak voices that are still calling for the resumption of tripartite negotiations. Ethiopia announced in March that construction of the dam was 90 per cent complete. Satellite pictures show that Addis Ababa is preparing for a fourth filling in the absence of any legally binding agreement, and that it had opened one of the dam’s gates without consulting downstream countries. The opening is to clear water in preparation for raising the height of the middle wall of the dam ahead of the July rainy season.
Addis Ababa’s announcement that the dam is 90 per cent complete came days after Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri had issued a fresh warning to Ethiopia against unilateral action on the dam.
“All options are open, and all alternatives remain available. Egypt has its capabilities, and its foreign relations,” said Shoukri.
Over the last three years, Ethiopia has unilaterally implemented three fillings of the dam. The first filling took place in July 2020, involving 4.9 billion m3 of water, the second captured 3 billion m3 while the third, conducted in July last year, took the total of water stored in the reservoir to 17 billion m3. The first two turbines of the dam were also installed last year.
Sharaki fears that, following the heightening of the middle wall, the dam’s fourth filling may be as much as the previous three together.
Worried that Africa’s largest dam will reduce its share of Nile water, Cairo has repeatedly called on Addis Ababa to sign an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Egypt depends on the Nile for irrigation and drinking water and the Blue Nile accounts for more than 80 per cent of its flow.
Sudan draws two-thirds of its water supplies from the Nile and regularly suffers from massive flooding during the rainy season. In the absence of coordination with Ethiopia, this flooding can have devastating effects on its dams and people.
Ethiopia’s prime minister has repeatedly stated that GERD will not harm downstream countries. He has refused, however, to give any guarantees that the amount of water reaching Egypt will remain unaffected by the dam.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly