Sudan and Ethiopia are nearing a fight over land and water

Border disputes and the GERD project are sowing the seeds of conflict between the two states.

Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrive for the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020 [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Humanitarian agencies and the international community have rightly decried the growing conflict within Ethiopia as a humanitarian disaster. Last November, conflict broke out between the federal government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the governing party of the northern Tigray region that dominated Ethiopian politics until being sidelined by Abiy. Nearly 10 months later, the conflict has grown into a de facto civil war. As the fight spreads across the country, it is bringing with it famine, massive refugee flows, widespread civilian deaths and sexual assaults, and fears of ethnic cleansing.

With so much death and destruction coming from the Tigray crisis, there is a danger that too little attention is being paid to the potential for a second deadly conflict to engulf Ethiopia, this one stemming from growing tensions with its neighbour Sudan. While the details are sometimes complex and technical, at its core, the brewing conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia has the most basic of motivations: control over land and water.

The land dispute between the two countries dates back more than a century to colonial-era agreements demarcating the border between the two countries. The greatest dispute is over a portion of land known as al-Fashqa, which both countries have claimed as their own. The most recent settlement of the territorial dispute came in 2008, when the TPLF-led Ethiopia agreed to recognise formal Sudanese sovereignty over the area in exchange for Sudan, led by longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, allowing Ethiopian settlers to remain in the area. Since then, however, both governments have fallen, and with them the agreement. When Ethiopian forces were diverted from defending al-Fashqa to go fight in Tigray, the Sudanese military moved back into the area.

The risk of war over al-Fashqa is serious. Twenty years ago, a similar dispute over a less commercially valuable tract of borderland between Ethiopia and Eritrea led to the bloody war between those two countries. Settling that conflict was what won Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize that many now regret awarding him. Even if Abiy was inclined to similarly negotiate over al-Fashqa – and so far, he has shown no indications that he will – he may not have much say in calming tensions. The Ethiopian settlers in al-Fashqa primarily belong to the Amhara ethnic group, whose militias have been among the fiercest pro-Abiy forces against the TPLF in the current Ethiopian crisis. The Amhara, who have long complained that their lands have been taken by other groups, are attempting to use the Tigray war to reclaim territory, both within Ethiopia and along the border with Sudan, and they resent past agreements made concerning the land without their consent.

The Sudanese military has been adamant about defending its control of the territory, and Sudan’s interim Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was recently quoted during a visit to al-Fashqa as declaring that, “We want our relationship to be good with Ethiopia, but we will not give up an inch of Sudan’s land.” Tensions have been exacerbated by the flow of tens of thousands of refugees from Tigray into Sudan, many of them arriving at al-Fashqa. The border dispute remains unstable, with deadly clashes between Sudanese troops and Ethiopian militia breaking out earlier this year.

Meanwhile, a so-far non-violent but potentially larger clash has been brewing over control of the Nile River. After 10 years of construction, Ethiopia has begun filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia asserts that the GERD project, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric facilities, is necessary to meet the country’s growing energy needs. Downriver countries Sudan and Egypt, on the other hand, have warned that disruptions of the flow of the Nile River would be devastating. Khartoum and Cairo have demanded that Ethiopia share information and coordinate control of the dam’s operations with them, a request that Ethiopia has dismissed as a violation of its own sovereignty.

Abiy has remained intractable, and the Tigray crisis seems to have only hardened his resolve to reject negotiations or compromise over the GERD. Formally, Sudan and Egypt have pursued political and legal avenues to resolve the dispute, appealing to the UN Security Council and the African Union, among others, to intervene. More ominously, however, both countries have hinted that military action could be on the table if a peaceful solution is not achieved. Earlier this year, Sudan and Egypt held joint military drills, giving the exercises the unsubtle name, “Guardians of the Nile”. Although Egypt potentially has more to lose from interrupted access to the Nile, which supplies nearly all of the country’s water, Sudan’s proximity to Ethiopia makes it likely that any fight over the GERD would largely play out between Sudanese and Ethiopian forces, especially given the other sources of tension that exist along the border.

So far, signs point towards deteriorating relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa. Hamdok’s offer to mediate between the TPLF and Abiy’s government was rejected by Ethiopian officials as not “credible,” leading to Sudan recalling its ambassador to Ethiopia for the second time this year. While neither side seems inclined to compromise over either the GERD or al-Fashqa, war is far from inevitable as the two countries face off. Recently, Sudan reported that the Ethiopian dam did not negatively impact the annual flooding of the Nile in Sudan. This is good news for the Sudanese, and for those invested in maintaining peace between the two countries, as it allows for more time to negotiate a permanent settlement. And, in theory at least, an agreement for al-Fashqa could be reached that would restore the 2008 status quo of a “soft” border to allow both Sudanese and Ethiopian residents to utilise the land.

More generally, each country sits in a precarious position, creating mixed motives for conflict. Abiy is dealing with the Tigray crises spiralling out of control, while Hamdok’s transitional government is trying to rebuild Sudan’s political institutions before elections scheduled for 2024. While each country’s leadership may be tempted to see its adversary’s weakness as an opportunity to strike, the leaders in Khartoum and Addis Ababa are likely looking at their own precarious positions as reasons to avoid a new large-scale conflict, if possible. Turkey, which has been strengthening relations with both Sudan and Ethiopia, has becomes the latest country to offer itself as mediator between the two countries over the al-Fashqa dispute. And Ethiopia has invited Algeria to play a role in GERD negotiations.

Both sides are far apart, and neither Ethiopia nor Sudan has offered much in the way of compromise so far, but both countries may soon realise that neither side can afford to take the risks involved in a major conflict between them. Though it is unclear whether or not the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan realise it yet, a face-saving, negotiated settlement – whether facilitated by Turkey, Algeria, the African Union or some other entity – is the best, and by far the safest, option for both countries.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.