Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has officially requested a four-party mediation from the United Nations, African Union, European Union, and the United States to facilitate the regional dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Since the start of the dam’s construction in 2011, the three countries, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have been unable to reach successful agreements over its operations. Since Egypt and Sudan lie downstream from the GERD, the careful regulation over the dam’s filling and operation is crucial to the countries’ economic and environmental development.
According to the Sudan Tribune Sudan’s request for mediation by Hamdok comes after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Khartoum in Sudan. After this visit, the Egyptian government officially “renewed its support for the Sudanese proposal to stop direct talks and establish international mediation” headed by the African Union. However, Ethiopia had recently indicated its opposition to adding mediators to the existing, AU-led process and has yet to comment on Hamdok’s formal call for external support.
As the most significant and most controversial hydropower project in Africa, Sudan and Egypt’s concerns are not unfounded. For Sudan, they remain indecisive on balancing their concerns about water supply with the dam’s enticing promise of cheap power and flood control. Recently, however, it appears that Sudan has strengthened their opposition to the dam. As Al Jazeera reports, Sudan fears that the project could increase the risk of flooding and affect its existing Nile River dams’ safe operations. More precisely, the government predicts that at least 20 million people, more than half the country’s population, could be affected if Ethiopia fills and operates the dam without coordinating with it.
For Egypt, they maintain that the dam represents an “existential threat.” Egypt is a water-scarce country with more than 100 million people, and they rely heavily on the Blue Nile for freshwater to supply for agriculture and its people. Hence, Egypt sees the GERD as a national security matter because of its threat to Egypt’s freshwater source and overall share of the Nile waters.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia asserts the benefits of the dam, citing the project as a solution to its severe power problem. The dam would provide electricity access for an estimated 65 million Ethiopians and pull millions of Ethiopians out of poverty. Additionally, Ethiopia maintains that its neighbours will benefit from cheap energy exports. On a deeper level, Ethiopia sees the dam as a critical milestone in industrializing their nation and as a symbol of national pride; after all, much of the construction funding was contributed by small donations from the population itself.
After nearly a decade of inconclusive negotiations, the call for intervention by international organizations on behalf of Sudan and Egypt displays a progressive move towards diplomatic, peaceful negotiations to resolve a bitter regional dispute, but also shows the inefficiency and almost a stubbornness from the countries to cooperate. The geopolitics on the Nile resources has been a longstanding issue. The political tensions among stakeholders and lack of a definitive agreement on the Nile water have contributed to the persistent hydro-political dilemma. The 1959 Nile Water Agreement outlines the cubic meters of water Egypt and Sudan are allowed from the Nile each year, but Ethiopia and the eight other Nile countries were not part of this agreement. Now, Ethiopia is negotiating for a formal water-sharing agreement with Egypt. There was a lack of clear communication and set of expectations surrounding the use of the Nile Water’s resources from the start.
As such, the main controversy today remains the rate at which Ethiopia will draw water out of the Nile to fill the dam’s reservoir. Later, in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative was introduced as a partnership among the 10 Nile Basin countries to “achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.” Since then, talks have been taking place to allocate Nile resources fairly, but they are inefficient and inconclusive. A meeting in 2009 between ministers from 10 countries convened in Alexandria, Egypt, and disagreed on managing their shared water resources. More recently, foreign affairs and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan met over in January of 2020 with the U.S. treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank president David Malpass. As the Egyptian newspaper Ahramonline reports, the two-day meeting was meant to finalize the GERD agreements. Still, it was extended for an extra two days without a successful deal – another example of failed, inefficient talks. As Egypt continues to be the primary user of the Nile water, these conversations could be helped by international organizations to direct fair allocations of the resources with an organized structure. Still, ultimately, all the countries need to adhere to the NBI’s initiative in cooperatively finding a solution – sharing the resources is the critical component of promoting regional peace and security.