The GERD and Sudan

Farouk Abu Deif
Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

The present crisis in Sudan has potentially important implications for the Egyptian and Sudanese positions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, writes Farouk Abu Deif


As the nearly year-old conflict in Sudan continues to defy regional and international mediation efforts, Ethiopia has taken advantage of the turbulence in the country to press ahead with unilateral steps regarding the filling and operation of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Since 2011, when Ethiopia declared its intention to proceed with the construction of the GERD, it has taken immense efforts to counter Addis Ababa’s unilateralism and set up joint mechanisms and frameworks to address the concerns of the downstream Nilotic nations, Sudan and Egypt.

These have included technical committees focused on various feasibility and impact studies. In 2014, a Tripartite Committee was formed to discuss the results of impact studies conducted by two foreign consultancy firms as well as the terms-of-reference and procedural rules of a joint legal and technical committee.

The following year, on 23 March 2015, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his then Sudanese and Ethiopian counterparts, president Omar Al-Bashir and prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, signed the GERD Declaration of Principles.

A ten-point agreement based on international law pertaining to transnational watercourses, it stressed the need for mutual understanding, mutual benefit, acting in good faith, and respect for international law. It also underscored the areas of collective benefit that could be expected from the dam, among them clean and sustainable energy generation, economic development, cross-border cooperation and regional integration.

However, Ethiopia then repeatedly defied the spirit of the declaration and proceeded with the construction and filling of the dam, precipitating crisis after crisis and necessitating international interventions that failed one after the other.

Some of these interventions took place under the auspices of the African Union (AU), and at one point Egypt was forced to appeal to the UN Security Council. Eventually, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed to postpone the fourth filling of the dam, and following a meeting with President Al-Sisi in Cairo it was agreed to restart trilateral negotiations with a timeframe of four months.

However, the last meeting of these negotiations was in July 2023. The conflict in Khartoum between the Sudanese National Army (SNA) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had erupted three months earlier, and now its escalation has serious implications for the GERD dispute, which is one of the thorniest issues in East African affairs because of its national security implications for Sudan and Egypt.

Recently, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti said that his government planned to proceed with the next filling of the dam without the consent of the two downstream countries. He claimed that the dam would not harm them, but clearly verbal assurances are not enough.

The turmoil in Sudan weakens Khartoum’s ability to take a firm stance at this time. SNA Commander and Head of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council Abdel-Rahman Al-Burhan is preoccupied with the battle against RSF Commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). Hemedti, in turn, has close relations with Addis Ababa, which is supporting him against Al-Burhan.

The stability of its southern neighbour is a strategic imperative for Egypt’s national security and the security and stability of the region as a whole. Water security is a vital component of security, for which reason Cairo and Khartoum must coordinate their positions closely to ensure their historic and legal rights as downstream riparian nations.

The current crisis in Sudan marks a potentially dangerous turning point in this regard. After Egypt had tried, unsuccessfully, to bridge the differences between the SNA and RSF, the latter turned against Egypt, accusing it of siding with Al-Burhan and rejecting it as a mediator.

Meanwhile, Addis Ababa continues to furnish the RSF with support against Al-Burhan, thereby potentially undermining the coordination between Cairo and Khartoum and weakening Sudanese objections to Ethiopia’s unilateral plans. As a result, Egypt will have to shoulder a greater share of the regional and diplomatic action needed to forestall these plans.

Addis Ababa may also attempt to take advantage of the RSF’s growing influence in Sudan to pressure Al-Burhan into agreeing to new filling procedures in exchange for a pledge of support against Hemedti. One of the potential advantages of the GERD for Sudan is its use in regulating the Nile floods, which can cause catastrophic flooding on the banks of the Blue Nile in some seasons.

Addis Ababa may try to leverage this to exact concessions from Khartoum on other bones of contention. For example, it might try to persuade Khartoum to renounce the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement on the grounds that Sudan was not independent, governed as it was by Egypt at the time. Sudan’s major economic interests in the GERD project may further induce it to align its positions more closely with those of Ethiopia.

If Ethiopia persists in its unilateralism, taking advantage of the crises in Sudan, Gaza, and the Red Sea in order to do so, the consequences could be disastrous for Sudan and Egypt. The fourth filling of the GERD would end the millennia-old agricultural system that depends on the annual Nile floods, forcing Sudan to build complex irrigation canals and hydraulic networks and to rely on artificial fertilisers to compensate for the loss of the Nile silt that will be blocked behind the dam. The costs of Sudanese agricultural production will undoubtedly rise considerably as a result.

Without proper agreements, Egypt and Sudan will be at Ethiopia’s mercy when it comes to storing water during rainy seasons and the flow of water downstream during dry seasons. Moreover, the generally reduced flows of water in the Nile will cause irrigation problems and lower agricultural production. It will also affect the movement of fish from the Blue to the White Nile, eroding what is available to Sudan and Egypt.

While it is still important for Egypt and Sudan to be on the same page on the GERD, under the current circumstances we should explore new alternatives for meeting Egypt’s increasing water needs. These will entail strengthening cooperation with the Nile Basin countries. Egypt has sought to collaborate with Tanzania in the construction of the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Plant and Dam. It has also strengthened water cooperation with Juba, as exemplified by the joint technical committee formed to support the water infrastructure in South Sudan.

Cairo and Khartoum could consider a number of options. One of the most promising would be to revive the Jonglei Canal project. Completing the construction of this canal would significantly increase Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water and potentially alleviate the pressures on Egypt’s water resources.

However, it is crucial for Egypt and Sudan to continue talks on their positions towards the GERD, given Ethiopia’s persistence in acting unilaterally and in a manner that is indifferent to the legal and moral rights of the downstream nations. This makes negotiating with Ethiopia quite a challenge.

Perhaps one alternative Egypt could pursue is to withdraw from or threaten to withdraw from the 2015 Declaration of Principles. Such a move would delegitimise the GERD. Meanwhile, Egypt should continue to pursue all available legal channels. A special international tribunal to arbitrate on the dispute remains an option, although it would require the consent of all three of the concerned parties, and so far Ethiopia has rejected this path.


The writer is a political researcher in African affairs

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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