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Will Sudan-Ethiopia border conflict affect GERD talks?

Border tensions have escalated between Sudan and Ethiopia in the past few days, coupled with Ethiopian threats to Sudan if it does not respond to peaceful solutions, which has triggered questions about the impact of such developments on the GERD issue.

CAIRO — Ethiopian Ambassador to Sudan Yibeltal Aemero warned that his country would take the necessary measures if Sudan does not respond to calls for a peaceful and friendly solution to the border dispute between the two countries in al-Fashqa region. Speaking to Ethiopia’s official state television on Feb. 4, Aemero accused Sudan of violating and attacking Ethiopian territories.

Aemero’s statement came after the Sovereignty Council of Sudan asserted in a press statement Feb. 1 that it will not relinquish any part of the Sudanese territories on the borders with Ethiopia, stressing that Sudan believes in a peaceful solution with Ethiopia and that the war option is not on the table.

The dispute over al-Fashqa dates back decades. The disputed territory lies within the international border of Sudan, but Ethiopian farmers have been living and exploiting the region for a long time now.

In late 2020, clashes broke out between Ethiopian and Sudanese forces and lasted for weeks. In late January, limited clashes erupted again between Ethiopia and Sudan, with Ethiopia claiming that Sudan took advantage of the Ethiopian forces’ preoccupation with the Tigray conflict to occupy Ethiopian territories.

The border dispute is not the only point of contention between Ethiopia and Sudan. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue has been going downhill, with the failure of the last round of negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on Jan. 10, upon Sudan’s insistence on changing the method of negotiation and expanding the role of African Union (AU) experts to enable them to play a key role in facilitating the negotiations and bridging the gap. However, Ethiopia and Egypt had their reservations, which they said stemmed from their desire to preserve the rights of the three countries to draft texts and provisions of the agreement to fill and operate the GERD. Besides, the AU experts are not specialized in the technical and engineering aspects of managing water resources and operating dams, the two countries argued.

In this framework, Hiba al-Bashbishi, a researcher at the African Studies Institute at the University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan will likely affect the GERD issue. Both sides might refuse, amid these developments, any new call for negotiations. The dispute also complicates the task of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which took the helm of the AU Feb. 6, to bring points of view closer on this matter (GERD).”

She added, “The recent Ethiopian behavior lacks balance on all domestic and foreign fronts,” in reference to the border crisis with Sudan and its take on the GERD issue, in addition to the implications of Ethiopia’s war in the Tigray area on the region. She indicated that such behavior might lead to the suspension of Ethiopia’s membership in the AU or to international and regional sanctions on it.

Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy Seleshi Bekele said Feb. 5 that Ethiopia is not concerned with the failure to reach an agreement regarding the GERD issue. He noted that more than 78% of the dam’s construction has been completed, adding that Ethiopia will start the second filling of the dam lake in the coming months. Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasser Abbas responded on Feb. 6, telling Reuters that Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to fill the dam's reservoir on the Nile River threatens Sudan’s national security.

Bashbishi said, “The border crisis between Ethiopia and Sudan is a long one and will not end soon. The DRC must call for an urgent session between the two countries in an attempt to solve the border dispute. Otherwise, neither party will be willing to resolve the GERD issue.”

Sudan and Egypt (the downstream countries) have been trying since the construction of the dam in 2011 to reach a binding legal agreement with Ethiopia (upstream country) through negotiations on the rules of filling and operating the GERD, in the framework of the Declaration of Principles signed by the three countries on March 23, 2015, in Khartoum. The declaration stipulated the adequate and fair use of the dam, commitment to do no harm, and full regional cooperation and integration. Egypt and Sudan fear the dam will affect their shares of Nile water.

Egypt, which suffers from water scarcity, fears a decrease of its share in the Nile water, which amounts to about 55.5 billion cubic meters, as a result of the GERD, which Ethiopia began to build in 2011 on the Blue Nile in an area located on the Ethiopian-Sudanese borders at an estimated cost of $4.6 billion and a maximum capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. There are also concerns the dam will affect agriculture in Sudan by retaining silt (sediment), and the decrease in the water level threatens fish wealth. Ethiopia claims that the dam is necessary for its economic development, as it would supply Ethiopia and some neighboring countries with large quantities of electricity.

Professor of politics at the University of Cairo Tarek Fahmy told Al-Monitor by phone, “It is clear that the military option preempts the political option with regard to the border crisis between Ethiopia and Sudan, especially in the absence of any AU intervention to find a peaceful solution.”

Fahmy does not believe new negotiations will take place now for several considerations, including the fact that Ethiopia is planning to begin the second phase of the dam’s filling in the coming months, and new negotiations cannot be held because they will be useless. Still, Ethiopia announced it has nothing to do with obstructing the negotiations, and Sudan’s situation does not allow engagement in new rounds of negotiations at this timing, he added.

Fahmy expects the DRC to declare the failure of the tripartite negotiations between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt in reaching an agreement on operating and managing the dam. The crisis will then be internationalized before the UN Security Council, he said.

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