Egypt, Sudan urge UN action on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia says ‘no’

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Egypt and Sudan urged the UN Security Council on Thursday to undertake “preventive diplomacy” and call for a legally binding agreement to resolve a dispute with Ethiopia over the availability of water from its dam on the Nile River, but Ethiopia insisted the matter can be solved by the African Union and many council members agreed.

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Egypt and Sudan called for the council meeting and sent their foreign ministers to New York to appeal for council action, saying 10 years of negotiations with Ethiopia have failed and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam or GERD is starting a second filling of its reservoir which not only violates a 2015 agreement but poses “an existential threat” to 150 million people in their downstream nations.

The dam on the Blue Nile is 80 percent complete and is expected to reach full generating capacity in 2023, making it Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and the world’s seventh-largest, according to reports in Ethiopia’s state media. Ethiopia says the $5 billion dam is essential to promote economic development and make sure the vast majority of its people don’t lack electricity.

Ethiopia’s water minister Seleshi Bekele Awulachew told the council that filling the reservoir was part of the dam’s construction and the Security Council should not be involved in the issue of Nile waters, saying no issue is further from its mandate of ensuring international peace and security.

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region. (File Photo: Reuters)
Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region. (File Photo: Reuters)

“The African Union is seized of the matter, and is ably facilitating our negotiation,” he said. “Ethiopia believes an agreement is within reach, given the necessary political will and the commitment to negotiate in good faith.”

Awulachew said the Security Council should encourage Egypt and Sudan to seriously negotiate a settlement on the filling and operation of the GERD.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry and Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi blamed Ethiopia for lacking political will.

They urged the Security Council to approve a Tunisian-drafted resolution that would require Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to negotiate a legally binding agreement within six months under AU auspices “that ensures Ethiopia’s ability to generate hydropower ... while preventing the inflicting of significant harm on the water security of downstream states.”

The draft encourages other parties “to actively engage in the negotiations with a view to addressing outstanding technical and legal issues.” And it urges Ethiopia “to refrain from continuing to unilaterally fill the GERD reservoir” and calls on Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia “to refrain from making any statements or taking any action that may jeopardize the negotiation process.”

Al-Mahdi said Sudan and Egypt believe reaching an agreement within six months is “very possible if the political will is available.”

She told reporters after the council meeting: “What we have heard there is really encouraging -- that this is a very important matter that is taking the interest of the world because it is a matter of imminent threat to the stability and security of an important region in the eastern part of Africa.”

The Blue Nile River is seen as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir fills near the Ethiopia-Sudan border, in this broad spectral image taken November 6, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
The Blue Nile River is seen as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir fills near the Ethiopia-Sudan border, in this broad spectral image taken November 6, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

“We are very much optimistic that the Security Council will address this matter in a responsible way, and it will not just be dropped from its agenda,” al-Mahdi said.

She noted that some council members are concerned about a precedent of addressing a water issue, but she stressed that addressing the GERD would be “a precedent” in preventive diplomacy “and looking at early warning signs,” — not having to deal with a peacekeeping mission later.

Egypt’s Shukry said all council members indicated there should be “no unilateral action taken” by the three countries, but failed to mention that Ethiopia has already taken unilateral action twice in filling the GERD’s reservoir which has “a negative impact on the negotiating side.”

Nonetheless, he said, council members demonstrated support for all the elements in the draft resolution so Egypt looks forward to its approval which will “reinforce and empower” efforts by Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi as AU chair to initiate negotiations with the three parties and negotiate a legally binding agreement.

“This is not a water issue. This is an issue of preventive diplomacy, an issue of conflict resolution” that relates to the dam “and the existential threat that it poses,” Shukry said, Every council member will have to provide justification if it doesn’t address the issue, especially since the draft resolution reflects “every single thing that was said by the council members” and supports the AU-led negotiations.

The Egyptian minister said Ethiopia’s actions threaten “the security of Egypt and Sudan” and its lack of political will has been “a main obstacle to reaching an agreement despite the moderation and flexibility that both Egypt and Sudan has shown.”

Asked about using military means, Shukry said, Egypt will continue to demonstrate flexibility and desire to support the AU-led process but at the same time it will “defend the interests of citizens and their livelihoods with all means available at its disposal.”

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the US believe the issue of sharing Nile waters “can be reconciled ... with political commitment from all parties, beginning with the urgent resumption of negotiations under the AU’s leadership.

She made no mention of the Tunisian resolution but said, “We believe that the African Union is the most appropriate venue to address this dispute, and the US is committed to providing political and technical support to facilitate a successful outcome.”

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia expressed concern at “the escalating confrontational rhetoric” and said “claims about possible use of force are unacceptable.”

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