Skip to main content

Egypt takes Nile dam dispute to UN Security Council

Egypt has asked the UN Security Council to weigh in on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam after tripartite negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan faltered.

CAIRO — Egypt announced June 19 that it has officially called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene to restart the tripartite negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and ensure a fair and balanced solution to the dispute is reached. 

The Egyptian appeal came hours after Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew told the Associated Press that his country will move ahead with filling the GERD without an agreement, adding, “We are working hard to reach a deal, but still we will go ahead with our schedule whatever the outcome is.”

Meanwhile, in a June 20 speech at an air base, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that Egypt's turning to the Security Council is intended to continue the political and diplomatic process. “We need to move strongly toward concluding the negotiations and reach an agreement … and solutions that achieve the interests of all,” he said.

Speaking during a June 15 video symposium organized by the Egyptian Business Council for International Cooperation, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said his country may turn to the Security Council “to prevent Ethiopia from taking unilateral measures that may undermine Egyptian water rights,” in response to what Egypt described as Ethiopia’s “intransigence” during the negotiations.

Ethiopia has refused to yield to pressure as Egypt has invoked international treaties and conventions such as the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1902. The Ethiopian Ministry of Irrigation stated June 14 that Egypt was adhering to an unfair treaty in the distribution of water.

Ayman Salama, a former professor of international law at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “Since Egypt resorted to the Security Council, the council has now two options. First, the council may issue a non-mandatory and non-binding recommendation to the disputing parties under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, if it concludes that the continuation of the dispute threatens the peace and security of the concerned parties, or it may refer the issue to the International Court of Justice if it determines that the dispute is a legal one. The Security Council could also issue a binding resolution to all parties under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if it concludes that the dispute effectively threatens the peace and security of the concerned countries.”

He added, however, that if the Security Council deems that the tripartite dispute threatens international peace and security, then it may issue a resolution under Chapter VII. These resolutions are applicable not only to the parties to the conflict, but to all UN member states. “This means that under Chapter VII, the Security Council can pass a binding resolution to stop the construction and filling of the dam until the three countries reach a comprehensive agreement,” he said.

However, Salama continued, “I do not think the Security Council will issue a binding resolution under Chapter VII, especially since it was only informed of the dispute in May.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told the Associated Press June 22 that if the Security Council fails to bring back Ethiopia to the negotiation table and prevent it from filling the dam, “We will find ourselves in a situation that we will have to deal with. … When that time is upon us, we will be very vocal and clear in what action we will take.” He stressed that Egypt has never threatened to take military action and always sought to reach a political solution in past years, while working to convince the Egyptian people of Ethiopia’s right to build the dam to achieve its development goals.

On June 12, Egypt and Sudan expressed reservations about a paper submitted by Ethiopia outlining its vision for the filling and operating the GERD during the third meeting of the tripartite negotiations, initiated by Sudan.

Spokesman of the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed al-Sebai said in a press statement June 13 that the Ethiopian paper grants Addis Ababa the right to unilaterally amend the rules for filling and operating the dam in response to the rates of electricity production at the dam and Ethiopian water needs, disregarding the welfare of downstream nations. 

He further noted that the paper failed to provide any guarantees for the downstream countries in periods of short and prolonged drought, and does not provide any protection for them from the effects and serious damage that may result from filling and operating the dam. Sebai indicated that the paper also does not include in the Nile dam agreement a binding legal mechanism to settle disputes.

Meanwhile, Egypt confirmed its adherence to the agreement reached during the Washington-sponsored negotiations on Feb. 12, which provided for filling the dam in stages and specific measures to deal with droughts that may coincide with the filling process, as well as long-term operating rules.

Tariq Fahmy, a professor of politics at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor via phone that resorting to the Security Council is necessary and inevitable at this time.

“This step would clarify Egypt’s position and the damage it is sustaining from the building of this dam. Egypt may mobilize efforts in its favor within the Security Council to get a resolution to stop the [initial] filling of the dam,” Fahmy said. “But this requires great diplomatic effort.”

He explained that resorting to the world body would send a strong message to international institutions and organizations that provide financing for the construction of the dam, such as the World Bank. “This could push them to halt their financing and undermine Ethiopia’s ability to fill the dam,” he said.

In a Skype interview during MBC Egypt's “Happening in Egypt” show on June 17, political analyst and director of the New Library of Alexandria Mostafa el-Feki said Sudan knows Ethiopia is seeking to renege on existing agreements regarding the distribution of the Nile River water quotas, in particular the 1959 Nile Water Agreement. He accused Ethiopia of wanting to annul law and history, which he said no one will tolerate. 

Feki, however, stressed the need to use all Egypt's resources such as mobilizing friendly countries to press for a fair agreement for all parties, ruling out the military option. “In war, there are no winners,” he said.