Khartoum's GERD Fears and Hopes

How Sudan is Addressing Big-Dam Issues with Ethiopia
US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman meets with Sudanese Foreign Minister Maryam al-Sadeq al-Mahdi in Khartoum on May 7, 2021. (Getty)

As Ethiopia prepares to move forward with the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) mega-dam it is building on the Blue Nile, differences between Sudan and Ethiopia are worsening over conflicting interests regarding the project. This is reflected on the ground through military tensions on both countries’ borders, where Ethiopian farmers are cultivating land on Sudanese territory.

Officials from both countries have also been exchanging accusations of intransigence and escalation as the crisis aggravates. Ethiopia is said to be ignoring Sudan’s request to resume talks and reach a binding agreement over the filling and operation of the GERD, sparking regional and international fear the situation would worsen.

Ethiopia, which started building the GERD in 2011, expects to produce more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity from the dam project, while Egypt and Sudan, downstream Nile Basin countries that rely on the river for its freshwater, are concerned that the dam might affect their share of the water resources. Ethiopia has announced that it would carry on with the second-phase 13.5-billion-cubic-meter filling of the GERD this month. The volume of the first-phase filling last year was 4.9 billion cubic meters.

Last week, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry accused Addis Ababa of being “intransigent” in its positions on the mega hydropower project, which is located only 15 kilometers from the Sudanese border.

“The other party’s intransigence may drag the region into dire risk,” stressed Foreign Minister Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi.

A soldier walks past girls looking on in the village of Dukouli within the Quraysha locality, located in the Fashaqa al-Sughra agricultural region of Sudan's eastern Gedaref state on March 16, 2021. (Getty)

A cautious calm has been prevailing on the borders since December, when four Sudanese soldiers were killed in armed clashes, while both armies deployed their forces on both parts of al-Fashaqa disputed area. Khartoum accuses Addis Ababa of invading its lands by arming and backing its “Shifta” militias.

While reaching an agreement over GERD has so far faltered, fears mount over the expected worsening conflict between the two largest neighboring powers in an already fragile region and the possible disintegration in the Horn of Africa, due to the dire situation.

In response to the crisis, Khartoum has formed a joint committee comprising security, political, agricultural, water and service aspects to address the worst-case scenario. It further intensified diplomatic efforts to find a new mediation to assist the African Union in finding a workable solution instead of playing observer.

While Khartoum did not reveal any military or security option to address the GERD dispute, its army announced its ability to restore all its border areas and called for demarcating the border, in line with already signed pacts.

According to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, Ethiopia had politicized the GERD issue due to its internal situation - a reference to the unrest in its troubled Tigray region.

In a voice-recording obtained by the Majalla editor during a forum for the alumni of the American University in Cairo last week, Sadiq said that Khartoum has been seeking through political and peaceful pressure to halt Addis Ababa’s actions that harm bilateral ties.

Majalla also learned that Khartoum has intensified its diplomatic efforts and has begun contacting the United States, the European Union and other major countries in the region to pressure the Ethiopian government and prevent it from moving forward in the GERD’s second filling.

It has further demanded that the international parties mediate directly to reach a legally binding agreement with Ethiopia and Egypt in this regard.

Authorized sources at the Sudanese Irrigation Ministry slammed the African Union experts’ stances and considered them incapable of including Khartoum’s demands in a binding agreement for all the parties.

Sudan has stressed the importance of the exchange of information and the joint technical management of the operation and filling of the dam. It aims to prevent any harm to its water facilities, especially its Roseires dam, which is located near the Ethiopian dam, as well as the agricultural development projects.

Sources expressed regret over Ethiopia’s reluctance to understand Sudan’s concerns.

“Ethiopia’s opposition raises actual concerns about possible plans to control the Blue Nile waters,” they said, noting that internal interactions and regional ambitions affect its decision.

Despite these preparations, advisers to the Sudanese government observed that technical issues will make it impossible for Addis Ababa to carry out the second phase of filling the reservoir with about 13.5 billion cubic meters.

Ethiopia failed to complete the first phase of the GERD filling of 4.5 billion cubic meters, they affirmed, noting that it stopped construction at 565 meter-long entrances to the concrete part.

“This height is not sufficient to reserve the amount of water Addis Ababa announced it aims to store,” they added.

Ethiopia needs to increase the height of this area to 690 meters to be able to reserve its targeted 13.5 billion cubic meters in the second filling phase in mid-July. Addis Ababa had officially announced that the second filling would continue until reaching 573 meter-long in height. 

However, these technical reassurances have not pacified Sudan’s fears arising from not being able to reach a binding agreement among the three concerned parties, prompting it to prepare various scenarios to address the crisis.

Khartoum pins its hopes on the international community and the US to pressurize Addis Ababa politically and diplomatically, especially since the US had played a significant role in the earlier mediation, when technical and legal issues were resolved and progress was made in the trilateral negotiations.

Ethiopia’s objection to signing the agreement dealing with GERD’s filling and operation as well as some technical matters changes the course of talks.

Representatives of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia meet to negotiate on the filling and operation of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on January 08, 2020. (Getty)

Officials in Sudan’s transitional government have repeatedly announced their country’s willingness to negotiate and resolve the issue through peaceful means, under the AU auspices and with the help of international partners as guarantors and facilitators.

Political Science Professor at the University of Africa Dr. Mohamed Khalifa Seddik says relying on the AU to resolve the Sudanese-Ethiopian crisis is useless.

He told Majalla that the AU will always be biased towards Ethiopia. Despite this, the situation remains alarming in the absence of a clear initiative that includes a roadmap to end the conflict.

For his part, Professor Abdel-Wahab al-Tayeb, who is specialized in the Horn of Africa affairs, said all the conditions for war are present and the region is ripe for a major regional war.

In fact, regional interests are intersecting, and in light of these complications and differences, the war is looming, he told Majalla.

He also recalled a statement by former US President Donald Trump in which he commented on Ethiopia’s rejection to sign the GERD agreement in Washington and did not rule out striking the mega-dam.

Tayeb further said the border dispute emanated from the GERD crisis, adding that Addis Ababa is behind this tension since the disputed lands are Sudanese, according to all the documents, pacts and international laws.

During late President Meles Zenawi’s rule, Addis Ababa recognized Sudan’s sovereignty over its lands, and both sides agreed to demarcate the borders with a Spanish company. But the political instability in both countries forced them to postpone marking out the demarcation lines.

Imad al-Naim, a strategic analyst who is familiar with the border issue, said that the impacts of the Ethiopian position appear clear in the military confrontations in the disputed al-Fashaqa border area.

Ethiopia refuse to reveal the program of opening and closing the dam for the water flow, he told Majalla, noting that Sudan wants to review this program and know when to open and close its reservoirs on the Blue Nile.

Khartoum seeks to prevent damage as a result of the sudden opening of the GERD channels that may have catastrophic effects on the downstream country.

Sudan seems to be biased towards Egypt, he said, yet it is actually working to attain its national interest, Naim stressed.

According to Naim, Khartoum sees the dam essential in the future to double its benefit from the Nile waters and limit the damages caused by the floods.

“It would also benefit citizens living in areas near the Nile to cultivate crops they couldn’t plant during the flood periods,” he concluded.