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UN Security Council weighs in on Nile dam dispute

The United Nations Security Council called on Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations on the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, reviving the international momentum over the dispute.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and others gather for a UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan, at the United Nations, New York, Aug. 16, 2021.

The United Nations Security Council has recently called on Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to resume negotiations on the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River. 

A statement by the president of the Security Council, which was approved by all 15 members of the council during an open session held on Sept. 15, said that negotiations should resume at the invitation of the African Union’s (AU) chairman “to finalize expeditiously the text of mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, within a reasonable time frame,” without specifying a deadline.

“The Security Council calls upon the three countries to take forward the AU-led negotiation process in a constructive and cooperative manner,” it continued.

The statement further urged observers who have been invited to attend the AU-led negotiations and any other observers that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agree to jointly invite, “to continue supporting the negotiations with a view to facilitating resolution of outstanding technical and legal issues.”

Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly called for developing the negotiations mechanism through the formation of an international quartet, consisting of the UN, European Union, United States, and led and run by the Democratic Republic of Congo in its capacity as chair of the AU. However, Ethiopia insists on the mediation of the AU alone.

Egypt and Sudan seek a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam involving an effective and binding mechanism for settling future disputes. Meanwhile, Ethiopia insists on an agreement that includes nonbinding guidelines.

On July 19, Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling of the dam’s reservoir with enough water to generate power. Egypt and Sudan rejected the unilateral move taken without reaching a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.

The Ethiopian move came after a months-long diplomatic escalation, which culminated in Egyptian threats of carrying out a military action if Addis Ababa took the step, which the two downstream countries regard as a threat to their national and water security.

According to Ethiopia, the $5 billion dam, whose construction reached 80% completion, is important to its economic development and power generation. But Egypt considers the dam as a serious threat to its water supply from the Nile on which it relies almost entirely to meet its freshwater needs. Sudan is also concerned about the dam’s safety and impact on its own dams and water stations.

The GERD issue hit a deadlock amid mounting fears of a military conflict in an already volatile region. The AU attempts that have been ongoing since June 2020 have failed to broker a deal that would end the stalemate in the negotiations, the last round of which was held in Kinshasa in April. Back then, the parties failed to agree to resume negotiations and exchanged accusations of obstructing the talks.

Paul Sullivan, a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, told Al-Monitor, “Having the UN Security Council taking this step [issuing this statement] shows that the UN and the countries part of the Security Council are very concerned about where this is going as they should be.”

Egypt described the UN Security Council’s statement as an “important impetus” to the stalled negotiations and urged Ethiopia to engage “seriously and with a sincere political will” in the talks to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.

On Sept. 15, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that the Security Council’s statement reflects the importance that its members attach to the GERD issue, and recognizes the importance of containing its negative repercussions on international peace and security.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi called for the resumption of the negotiations as soon as possible in order to reach “an agreement acceptable for the three parties.”

After a meeting with Congolese Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula in Khartoum Sept. 15, she told the press that the filling of the reservoir by Ethiopia reflects an “intransigence that does not befit a state that respects the sovereignty of its neighbors and preserves their interests.”

Tarek Fahmy, a political science professor at Cairo University, expects the Security Council’s statement to contribute to the resumption of trilateral negotiations.

He told Al-Monitor, “The negotiations will resume sooner or later. … Ethiopia will respond to the Security Council’s call to engage in the negotiations, as it does not have the luxury of accepting or rejecting it.”

Fahmy said that Lutundula’s recent African tour, which included stops in the three disputing countries and coincided with the Security Council’s statement, aims to find a common mechanism to push the three countries to reengage in the negotiations under the AU auspices.

Fahmy added, “In parallel, Algeria also seeks to offer an initiative that would be accepted by the three countries, given to its good relations with the concerned parties and its weight in the AU.”

On June 29, 2020, the Security Council discussed the GERD dispute for the first time, which coincided with the first filling of the dam’s reservoir. When it became clear that Addis Ababa intends to move forward with the second filing earlier this year, the dispute once again captured international attention.

The presidential statement was issued more than two months after the Security Council held a session on July 8 at the request of Egypt and Sudan. In an attempt to settle the dispute, Cairo and Khartoum sought — with the support of Tunisia — a nonpermanent member, a legally binding resolution requiring the three countries to negotiate a legally binding agreement within six months under the AU auspices. Ethiopia opposes any interference in the GERD crisis by the Security Council, which it considers outside its mandate.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the Security Council directing the GERD issue to the AU-led negotiations. However, it regrets that the council “pronounces itself over an issue that is outside of its mandate.”

“Any demands made based on the Security Council’s statement will not be recognized,” the ministry said in a Sept. 15 statement.

Tirusew Asefa, an Ethiopian expert on water issues and professor at the University of South Florida in the United States, told Al-Monitor, “While it is good to see that the Security Council recognizes that this is an issue that should be resolved under the auspices of the AU, it should not be dictating what they should do or how the process should be done. That is not their mandate.”

He noted, “The UN Security Council is effectively saying they [the three countries] should reach a water-sharing agreement using a single project on a single basin. Water sharing should include all stakeholders in the Nile Basin, not just three countries."

Ethiopia is pushing for a reconsideration of the countries’ shares of the Nile waters, which it seeks to include in the GERD talks. Egypt and Sudan, however, reject this request.

Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research and UNESCO chair of international water cooperation, told Al-Monitor, “It [the presidential statement] is an important step because the Security Council has finally taken a formal position after months of negotiations on how to resolve the dispute over the GERD. This statement is also crucial that the UN Security Council has entered into a transboundary river dispute for the first time.”

“However, this statement has only moral and procedural importance, but no legal sanctions behind it. Moreover, this statement has been a product of compromises. It keeps something for everyone to be happy about, but does not provide a well-formulated road map in reaching an acceptable and binding agreement,” Swain added.

He said, “I think the three countries will resume negotiations, but there is very little hope of arriving at any negotiated agreement. The AU  has failed for nearly two years in mediating the dispute, and I do see a very little possibility that it will succeed now.”

He concluded, “The agreement on the GERD dispute will be only possible when the riparian countries agree to make compromises."

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