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Is Sudan’s neutral stance hindering agreement over Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam?

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on 26 December 2019. - The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. [EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images]
A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on 26 December 2019 [EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP/Getty Images]

Sudan’s continued insistence on maintaining a neutral stance in the negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam could be hindering rather than assisting the prospect of finding a resolution to the long running dispute. Despite the clear benefits the damn would bring to Sudan, Khartoum is walking a political tight rope in a bid not to offend Egypt or alienate Ethiopia. Online negotiations between the three countries have stalled in recent weeks as the deadline nears for Ethiopia’s plan to begin filling the dam next month.

Sudan has wavered between its two neighbours but is now siding with Egypt by insisting that negotiations have to be concluded before preparations to make the dam operative can begin. Ethiopia is hoping to begin filling the dam during its rainy season starting next month to allow operations for the Dam to start in 2021. The Ethiopian government is refusing to accept Egyptian claims that the dam will have a detrimental effect on the downstream water flow into Sudan and Egypt. According to the Ethiopians, the dam will resolve three major problems: electricity supply for its citizens; boost its nation development and generate foreign exchange through the sales of the electricity to its neighbours.

READ: Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan to meet again amid strained talks over dam

It is estimated that in the event Ethiopia fills the dam over a ten-year period, Egypt’s Nile water flow could be reduced by 14 per cent. However, experts also suggest a speedier five-year target to fill the dam would result in a up to a 50 per cent loss with Egyptian arable farming land drying up as a result of desertification. Ethiopian commentators, Yonus Bira and Yohannes Gedamu, writing in an English language online news outlet – Fortune, accused Sudan, “of echoing Egypt’s groundless suggestion that the design and the construction of the “gigantic” dam represents a serious threat to millions of its (Egypt’s) population.”

As for Sudan, the dam would bring good news. First, it would prevent the loss of life and property that occurs every year when the Blue Nile river floods the surrounding areas in the rainy season. Second, it would transform Sudan’s irrigation of crops and in turn improve production yields in areas close to the dam. Thirdly, it would also allow Sudan to benefit from the cheap electricity that would be produced by the dam’s 6,000-megawatt output. However, international water law experts like Ahmed Mufti, a former Sudanese negotiator, believes in the long run Sudan would be the most adversely affected if it could not guarantee a long-term water security agreement through a legally binding agreement over the designated water shared between the three countries.

Currently, Egypt and Sudan are abiding by a1959 agreement which allocates 55 billion of the total 84 billion cubic metres of water to Egypt and 18 billion to Sudan. The agreement also gives the two countries a veto over any upstream development. Ethiopia was never party to that agreement and protracted negotiations between the ten countries that share the Nile water broke down in 2010 when Egypt and Sudan walked out of the Entebbe Agreement. Egypt insist that those water levels have to be maintained.

In a press conference yesterday, Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation Yasir Abbas pointed out that Khartoum would not accept a unilateral decision by Ethiopia to begin filling the dam, or any unilateral decision taken by Egypt which plans to ask the United Nation’s Security Council to intervene. The Sudanese stance seeks to strike a balance between the sides, but it means that its neutrality may be inadvertently maintaining the stand-off between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

READ: Egypt, UK agree to enhance coordination on Ethiopia’s dam

Sudan’s stance may be politically prudent, and credit has to be given to its Prime Minister, Hamdok for restarting the negotiations but experts are suggesting that the concentration of political interest around this issue is unlikely to ultimately bring long-lasting solutions. Professor Allam Ahmed of the World Association for Sustainable Development, criticised Sudan’s stance and said there could be no real political solution. “I do not think that is the right way to solve the problem (politically), we need to look at the bigger picture, this is fundamentally a sustainable development issue, that should be left to the scientists and experts to resolve,” he told Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

The final sticking points yet to be resolved between the sides are three. An agreement on the water share, a consensus on the proposed length of the agreement and future agreements and an agreed mechanism to resolve disputes. In October 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was widely misquoted as saying he was prepared to go to war against Egypt, when in fact his brief statement in parliament expressly stated that going to war would not be in the interests of any of the parties but nevertheless his words have only served to inflame tensions. Given the threats made by Egypt to destroy the dam and its movement of soldiers on the Eritrean border in 2018 thought to have been in preparation to attack the project, the prospect of open conflict is a genuine possibility in the absence of a comprehensive agreement.

Sudan’s government is hoping its conciliatory, sit on the fence, neutral tactics will help avert possible conflict but with just over ten days before Ethiopia’s promised deadline to start filling the dam, the pressure on all sides to find a negotiated solution is building.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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