The UN Security Council encouraged Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations on the contentious issue of water availability from the dam that the Ethiopians are building on the Blue Nile tributary of the Nile River. The statement, approved by all council members, said tripartite negotiations should resume at the invitation of the African Union’s chairperson. This is “to finalize expeditiously the text of mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the (dam) within a reasonable time frame.” “The Security Council calls upon the three countries to take forward the AU-led negotiation process,” it continued.
The dam, commonly referred to as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, is 80% complete and expected to reach full generating capacity in 2023. The brain-child of former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the GERD is seen as an integral part of the country’s ambition to become a middle income nation, a regional hegemon. Once completed, it will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant—energy producing potential that could see it provide more electricity at a cheaper price, increase irrigation potential and reduce flooding to its downstream neighbors. Initially, when the dam was first announced, these benefits seemed to have influenced Sudan’s early enthusiasm for the project.
10 years since that announcement, however, Egypt and Sudan have complained that negotiations failed to produce tangible results and a change in Ethiopia’s behavior. Instead, they argue, Abiy Ahmed’s government has continued to construct the dam in violation of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD. The three countries committed to “cooperation, equitable and reasonable utilization, security, and the peaceful settlement of disputes.” Worse yet, Ethiopia has commenced with a second filling of its reservoir. The first filling occurred last year, much to the chagrin of the governments in Cairo and Khartoum.
This all explains the quotes attributed to Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, which welcomed the statement as a “significant push” to stalled negotiations. Egypt’s foreign ministry also urged Ethiopia to engage “seriously” in talks to achieve a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Equally enthusiastic was Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi, who called for resumption of the talks soon to reach “an agreement acceptable for the three parties.” This comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity which includes the recent visit to Khartoum by her counterpart from Congo, Christophe Lutundula, whose nation chairs the African Union.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said it “welcomes” the council directing the issue to the AU-led negotiations, but added that it regrets the council pronouncing “itself over an issue of water right and development that is outside of its mandate.” In July, Egypt and Sudan sought a legally binding Security Council resolution that would require the three countries to negotiate a legally binding agreement within six months under AU auspices. It will ensure “[E]thiopia’s ability to generate hydropower … while preventing …significant harm on the water security of downstream states.”
The council has not adopted such a resolution, instead approving this presidential statement. This decision appears to have been informed by the differing views of its members with regard to the need for the 15-member body dedicated to world peace to take on a subject related to water supply. This stance is consistent with its statement that it neither aims to set out principles or precedents in any water disputes. Its statement encouraged observers that have been invited to attend. In this case, the African Union was invited to support the negotiations and help steer the three sides towards a resolution on outstanding technical and legal issues.
This move is likely to be well-received in Addis since Ethiopia has stated that it is against Security Council involvement in a matter that should be resolved in Africa by African entities. However, as important as it is to respect the boundaries imposed by the three basin neighbors, there is a need to find a lasting solution after so many failed opportunities throughout the last decade.
The momentum and goodwill that led to the 2015 agreement has been found lacking since, when all sides should have focused on ensuring equitable water usage and codifying the right to develop water projects for all basin countries. We have instead witnessed delays, disagreements, and threats. Yes, there has been political upheaval in both Ethiopia and Sudan. Yes, the negotiating partners triggered anxiety among observers, both regionally and internationally. The leadership structures have also changed. Yet, the need to sign up to a binding agreement has not been satisfied. Nor have the stresses (i.e. population growth and droughts) on this most-treasured of natural resources dissipated. All of which makes the current efforts by the African Union, with the nudging of the Security Council, all the more encouraging.
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