KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - The very day the much delayed visit by Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri to Khartoum took place, Sudan revealed that following the UN Convention on the Law of Sea articles it has notified the world body that it does not recognize the 1990 step taken by Egypt to delimit the straight baseline and that Halaeb falls within its sovereignty.
However, the meeting between the two foreign ministers reiterated the previous position of leaving the disputed issue of Halaeb to be handled by the two presidents, but they expressed their intent to de-escalate the rising tension of the past few weeks.
The call to restrain the anti-media rhetoric is in fact a side issue that reflects a serious concern about Halaeb and a deeper one regarding water issues. Give its growing population, that the Nile is its only source of water, Egypt takes water as a top priority national security issue and was banking on Sudan’s support given the 1959 Nile water agreement signed between the two.
But today’s world is different from that of more than half a century ago, when the agreement was signed without consulting the very country from where the Blue Nile flows, Ethiopia.
When the Nile Basin Initiative was proposed by the World Bank in the early 1990s, Egypt was sceptical about it because Ethiopia did not recognize the 1959 agreement. However, things went on and off up to when Ethiopia started building its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Though Khartoum hosted a meeting between Egypt and Ethiopia two years ago where the three presidents signed a memo of understanding on how to handle issues related to GERD, but Cairo continued to be suspicious about the project fearing that when the lake will be filled it will eventually affect its share of the Nile waters.
GERD has its pros and cons, but Sudan calculated that it can benefit from it more through harnessing the floods and provide electricity. And that is where both countries started not to see eye to eye on the water issues, which becomes a source of tension.
Add to this the drive by Sudan to utilize its arable land given the improvement of its relations with the Gulf States to the extent that a memorandum of understanding on strategic relationship between Sudan and the GCC countries is in the offing. Sudan has already agreed to grant Saudi Arabia one million feddans in eastern Sudan for 99 years and accordingly a dam on Upper Atbara and Seteit will be built to arrange for irrigating this land.
Egypt looks cautiously at these developments as they mean in the end more water will be utilized by Sudan. According to the 1959 water agreement between the two countries Egypt’s share would be 55.5 billion cubic meters, while that of Sudan would be 18.5 billion meters. Though hard and accurate figures are difficult to reach and verify, but it was believed that Sudan never utilized its full share. In fact the bulk of water usage in Sudan was by the troubled Gezira scheme, which used to consume around 8 billion cubic meters. Other figures attributed to former irrigation minister Kamal Ali suggest that Sudan’s utilization of water was in the range of 12 billion cubic meters.
With this calculation it seems some 6.5 billion cubic meters continue their journey unhindered to Egypt. Though it is not clear yet how much new projects carried out by Gulf investors will consume in water, but clearly they will have their impact.
And that is where a new approach is needed in Sudan’s bilateral relations with both Egypt and Ethiopia. Both countries are highly populated on their way to 100 million each. In addition there is a lot in common in terms of shared history, intermingling of border population between the two and Sudan, which could be a strategic backbone or a threat for each.
However, Sudan needs to present clearly that it looks after its own interest in the first place, which may not fall in line with either Egypt’s or Ethiopian priorities. The GERD is a case in a point, where Sudan adopts a more favorable position towards it for the benefits it sees in it. Moreover, Khartoum needs to argue with both Cairo and Addis Ababa that improving its relation with one of them does not have to come at the expense of the other. And that is the tough take waiting the Sudanese diplomacy.
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