Ethiopia has stoked tension with Egypt and Sudan over the construction of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile particularly after it officially announced for the first time on May 31, 2011 its dam construction plan and started building the GERD’s reservoir, an action which Egypt and Sudan view as a unilateral decision in contrast to the mandate-that the dam should not be constructed without a legally binding agreement
This development has prompted the Republic of Sudan to draw the attention of Ethiopia on the need to conclude ongoing negotiations before it can complete the GERD in order to mitigate the negative impacts that will arise from the projects on people of Sudan and Egypt and therefore reduce tension.
Ethiopia is currently in the final phases of construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which is being built across the Blue Nile merely 5 to 15 kilometers from the Sudanese–Ethiopian border; with a storage capacity of 74 Bm3 and installed capacity of 6,000 MW of electric power. Once completed, GERD will be among the largest 15 hydroelectric power plants in the world, located just 100 kms upstream of the Roseries dam which is 1/10th the size of GERD.
GERD has the potential of bringing both positive and negative impacts on Sudan. However, for the positive impacts to be realized and for the negative impacts to be mitigated there has to be an agreement with Ethiopia on how it intends to fill and operate GERD, otherwise GERD stands to cause huge risks to Sudan.
On the positive side, all the potential positive impacts will result from regulating the water flow of the Blue Nile which, in turn, will reduce the annual floods during the rainy season, and will enable Sudan to better manage its irrigation system, and it will relatively increase the hydropower generation. Other positive impacts include more reliability of supplies to irrigated agriculture schemes, and longer life time for dams (with the decrease of sediments load), savings in pumping cost and increase of navigational potential.
On the negative sides, GERD will completely change the flow regime of the Blue Nile by flattening its hydrograph. With its gigantic size, it poses great potential negative impacts on Sudan if not properly designed, constructed, filled and operated. These impacts range from threatening the lives and safety of millions of Sudanese citizens living directly downstream the GERD to the operational safety of the Sudanese dams, to the agricultural system of the country, and to the socioeconomic and environmental impacts along the Blue Nile and downstream in the main Nile.
Therefore, while Sudan recognizes the right of Ethiopia to develop its water resources for the benefit and well-being of its citizens, it is very essential that Ethiopia does so while ensuring that any potential negative impact is properly addressed and mitigated in close consultation and coordination with the downstream riparians.
Sudan believes that the United Nations Convention on the law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Convention) reflects and codifies the basic principles of customary international water law which must be adhered to, during the negotiations, to resolve the remaining differences on the GERD.
The overarching of these principles of international water law is cooperation of the riparian states of the shared watercourse. Under this umbrella, the UN Convention lays down, in detail, four main principles to which Sudan fully subscribes: the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization; the obligation not to cause significant harm; notification and exchange of data and information; and the peaceful settlement of disputes.
Based on the above principles, and throughout the process, Sudan negotiated in good faith and believed in and advocated for a comprehensive agreement inclusive of all three riparian countries. That’s why Sudan refrained from conducting bilateral negotiations in Washington in the absence of Ethiopia. Sudan also refused to endorse an Arab League decision condemning Ethiopia. At the same time, Sudan rejected a proposal by Ethiopia for a partial agreement covering only the first stage filling as Sudan believes any agreement has to be comprehensive and covers all related issues to the filling and operation of GERD.
Furthermore, Sudan strongly believes that reaching an agreement on the guidelines and rules prior to starting the filling of GERD is extremely necessary and important for all parties; any unilateral decisions on the timing and rules of filling GERD will put millions of lives and communities at risk.
Since 2011, Sudan has participated in all stages of negotiations concerning the GERD, including organizing the negotiations rounds in Sudan that culminated in the successful conclusion of the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles (DoP) on the GERD which was signed by the leaders of the three countries in Khartoum, Sudan on 23rd March, 2015.
The current round of negotiations started in 2018 and in November 2019 the United States and the World Bank joined as observers to support the three riparian countries to reach a final agreement on the filling and operation of GERD. On request by Egypt to include the US and World Bank as observers, the ministers of foreign affairs and water in the three countries, met in Washington on the 3rd November, 2019 and agreed on the way forward. Consequently, 5 meetings were held in the region (Addis Ababa, Khartoum, and Cairo), plus 6 meetings in Washington.
In all the meetings held on February 12 and 13, 2020 in Washington, there was a major breakthrough where the three parties reached agreement on most of the issues under the negotiation table; and agreed to discuss and finalize the remaining issues during the next meeting that held between 28 and 29 February 2020 in Washington.
However, Ethiopia was unable to attend the February 28th 2020 meeting and Sudan in line with its commitment to reach a comprehensive agreement, sent its negotiations team to Washington but in the absence of all the three parties, Sudan refused to take part in any bilateral negotiations in the absence of the third party. Sudan strongly believes that meaningful negotiations can only be conducted by the three parties.
Starting around mid-March 2020, the Prime Minister of Sudan, Dr. Abdalla Hamdock, led an initiative to convince the parties to resume the negotiations and reaching a fair, comprehensive and final agreement. With this context, the Prime Minister of Sudan held bilateral meetings with the Prime Ministers of Egypt and Ethiopia on May 19 and 21, 2020 respectively. His efforts led to the restart of bilateral technical discussions followed by trilateral negotiations.
From May 25 to June, 2020 the Sudanese negotiations team led by the Minister of Irrigation held six bilateral technical discussions (three each with Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s ministers) to prepare for the resumption of the trilateral negotiations.
The Prime Minister of Sudan issued an invitation to three observers, namely; South Africa, the current Chair of the African Union, the United States of America, and the European Union. Following that, an invitation was extended by Sudan to all parties including the observers for the resumption of the trilateral negotiations.
Sudan believes that the three parties made significant progress on the main technical issues mainly the first filling, annual operation, mitigation measures, dam safety, environmental and social issues, coordination, and data exchange. However, on the legal issues, a widening gap emerged on the issues of the binding nature of the legal agreement including amendments and termination, dispute resolution mechanism, and the reference to 1959 water treaty between Egypt and Sudan as well as a demand by Ethiopia to enter into a water sharing agreement within 10 years in accordance with the Nile Basin Comprehensive Framework Agreement.
– Farik is a public affairs analyst