Sudan: How Sudan's Record Flooding Could Affect Ethiopia Dam Project

White Nile river
19 September 2020

The recent flooding in Sudan has claimed hundreds of lives, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and displaced over one million people, forcing Khartoum to declare a three-month state of emergency.

Sudanese authorities have blamed heavy rains originating from neighboring Ethiopia for the unprecedented disastrous flooding, which has reportedly exceeded records set in 1946 and 1988, with "expectations of continued rising indicators" as reported by Al Jazeera.

Though this is not the first time for the Nile to burst its banks, victims say this is the worst case of flooding they have ever witnessed.

And in a tweet on August 30, Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said, "This year's flood caused a tragic and painful loss of lives and properties."

As Sudan searches for solutions, Ethiopia continues to argue that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), being built near the Sudanese border, will ease the severity of flooding in Sudan.

According to independent international water experts, when the GERD reservoir is completed and managed properly with adequate water storage space, the risk and impacts of downstream flooding will be significantly reduced.

"Flood control is one of the benefits that a large dam provides but it must be done carefully and with clear coordination and communication with downstream water users," Kevin Wheeler, a Researcher at Oxford University told the Nation.

"Standard operation of the GERD should significantly reduce the risks of large scale flooding and reduce sediment transport downstream."

Reservations

But Sudan and Egypt fear that Ethiopia's $4.8 billion mega dam project will eventually diminish their historic water share from the Nile River.

Khartoum has been opposing Ethiopia's unilateral move to fill the reservoir.

However, after the devastating flooding, Sudan's irrigation minister, Yassir Abbas, on August 27 said, "Sudan wouldn't have suffered such a devastating wave of floods if GERD had been completed."

"The minister's statement is a testament to the need for a more comprehensive approach for regional water resource development projects. Had the dam been completed, it would have held more water in the reservoir and used it as a tool to minimise the adverse effects of the flood," said Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a political analyst on East Africa.

"The record high flooding affirms that the level of water fluctuation is much beyond Ethiopia's control and signals the need for a shared regional environmental policy and strategy, including investment in the technological forecasting capability, in which GERD would play a key water regulation role."

Key issues

The Africa Union (AU) brokered the last round of talks by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt in August but they ended without any major breakthrough.

The three parties are yet to negotiate on the most outstanding issues - rules for filling and annual operation of the GERD.

The flooding has raised questions of whether the deadly incidents in Sudan could change the mood of the upcoming Nile dispute talks.

Speaking to the Nation, Professor Ashok Swain, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, said he believes the flooding in Sudan could impact the next round of talks.

"It will certainly give Ethiopia additional arguments to support its position on the early operation of the GERD and put Egypt on the defensive," said Prof Ashok, who is also the Unesco chair on International Water Cooperation.

"The massive flood in Sudan can be used to convince not only Sudan but also Egypt that the GERD could help with the positive use of the water resources in a flood season."

However, Prof Ashok states that the floods in Sudan also show the huge variation in the rainfall pattern in the Blue Nile basin, which supports Egypt's case on why the agreement on filling the reservoir needs to be specific and comprehensive about dry years.

Cooperation

It is a fact that GERD, if cooperatively managed, will significantly help Sudan with flood control.

"Sudan understands this and that is the reason it has been supporting the project. However, Sudan can only gain from the operation of the GERD if it operates in cooperation and with an agreement" said Prof Ashok.

"Sudan supports the GERD project and a binding agreement among riparian countries for its operation. Though Sudan will appreciate the importance of GERD more, it will still like an agreement, not the unilateral filling and operation of the GERD."

Mr Wheeler says GERD can be beneficial to downstream countries, in management of both floods and droughts, "if there is a clear and absolute commitment by the countries regarding how they will operate during these very critical times".

Prof Ashok notes the trio have a key lesson to learn from the flooding.

"The lesson is that GERD is a huge development project and that basin countries need to cooperate in order to get the best possible benefit."

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