Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is set today to warn members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) against the “possible worrying consequences” of allowing Ethiopia to get away with its unending intransigence that has blocked all possible chances so far to reach an agreement among the three Blue Nile Basin countries (Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt) on the filling and operation of the mega dam that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile.
According to an informed Egyptian source, Shoukry’s statement will go beyond the speech of last year, when the top Egyptian diplomat, in June 2020, briefed the council on the length and width of Egyptian diplomatic attempts to work with Sudan and Ethiopia to secure a deal that would guarantee Ethiopia its economic interests without inflicting massive harm on Egypt’s water rights.
“This year, things have gone worse; we had a whole year of inconclusive negotiations,” the source said. He added that in addition to its continuous failure to cooperate on reaching a deal on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia has also declined the proposal of Sudan to allow the African Union (AU) to collaborate with the UN, the US, and the EU to work out an agreement. “And on top of it, Ethiopia decided to start the second filling [earlier this week] without any prior notice or any serious coordination,” he added.
Upon a Sudanese proposal, for close to two years now, Ethiopia has been engaged with Egypt and Sudan in AU-sponsored negotiations to reach a deal on the filling and operation of the dam. The last round of meetings was held on 24 June in Kinshasa. It failed to move the issue forward.
The sticking point so far has been about Ethiopia’s rejection of signing a legally binding deal that would specify terms of filling mitigation, open filling, operation, and dispute settlement mechanism. Ethiopia has been recently declining any legal deal, insisting that it could only agree to a set of guidelines.
“It is very clear where Ethiopia is heading; it is heading to continue its plan and not to get itself committed to anything that would amount to an assurance to the water rights of Sudan and Egypt,” the informed Egyptian source said. “Clearly, this is not a situation that would go without consequences or without a reaction of some sort; and it is very important that the UNSC becomes aware of the possible consequences,” he added.
According to a diplomatic source who had spoken earlier in the week from the UN headquarters in New York, “several members of the UNSC, including some permanent members, insist that the crisis over the GERD does not amount to a threat to peace and security in the Nile Basin/Horn of Africa region.”
The statements of Shoukry and his Sudanese counterpart Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, before the UNSC session today, the diplomatic source said, explain how this situation could be in fact “a serious threat to peace and security – maybe not just in the East Africa region, but beyond.”
Shoukry and Al-Mahdi arrived in New York earlier this week to prepare for the UNSC meeting on GERD that is convening upon two independent requests from Cairo and Khartoum. Addis Ababa criticised the meeting, saying the dispute over the dam should be confined to the AU. However, both Egypt and Sudan pushed for the meeting out of despair to get Ethiopia to move on towards a legally binding deal on the filling and operation of the close to 75 bcm GERD.
This is the second UNSC session on the GERD crisis. The first was held in June last year, in which the UN body requested the AU to continue its work to get an agreement forged and called on the three countries to refrain from taking any unilateral measures. However, last July, Ethiopia executed the first filling of a little under 5 bcm.
Last week, the Ethiopian minister of water resources sent two letters to his Sudanese and Egyptian counterparts to inform them that Ethiopia had started the second filling.
According to the original plan, the second filling is supposed to get close to 14 bcm of Nile water withheld in the GERD reservoir. However, due to delays in the construction works, Ethiopian officials announced that they would have to settle for less than 14 bcm. Assessments have varied on whether Ethiopia would withhold 5 bcm or 9 bcm by the end of the wet season this year.
“At the end of the day, it is not about the amount of water, because contrary to the Ethiopian narrative [about the need to reserve 9 bcm to get the first two turbines of the dam to work], an extra 4 bcm to the around 5 bcm that were withheld last year could easily get the turbines to work,” argued Hani Raslan, a senior African affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS).
The objective of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed “today is not just to get the turbines to work, but to divert the attention of his own people from the big political mess and military failures he has inside Ethiopia with his failed war on Tigray,” Raslan said.
Last week, Ahmed had to end his close to six-month military offensive on the Tigray region, in the north of Ethiopia, after the army of the central Ethiopian government failed to take control of the region. During the past six months, Ahmed has been facing international criticism for the grave humanitarian crisis that his war on the Tigray has caused to civilians there.
Moreover, Ahmed had to stop another military offensive that he had ordered in the Fashqa region, on the borders with neighbouring Sudan. Some sources in Khartoum argued that the move was part of a tactic he orchestrated to reduce tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan ahead of the UNSC meeting on GERD today.
However, according to Raslan, it is more about the “failure of the military adventures of Abiy Ahmed rather than anything else.” The move, Raslan added, has not “so far prompted any significant change in the position of Sudan.”
Yesterday, Sudanese Minister of Irrigation Yasser Abbas said that his country is not willing to go back to the AU-sponsored negotiations unless some significant change on the function of negotiations is introduced. Without changing the modalities of the negotiations, Abbas argued, it would be pointless to continue going in circles.
“This is why it is very important for the UNSC to send a clear message to Ethiopia on the need to stop wasting time and to move on to conclude an agreement,” Raslan said.
However, according to informed diplomatic sources who spoke on the prospects of today’s UNSC meeting, it is quite unlikely the council will adopt a resolution or issue a presidential statement on the matter.
According to the same sources, the council was not set, hours before its meeting, to move beyond issuing a press statement that will again call on the three Blue Nile Basin countries to work together towards an agreement that would accommodate their interests. The sources did not confirm the chances of a press statement.
Tunis, the current Arab member of the UNSC, this week tabled a draft resolution, on behalf of Egypt and Sudan, for the council on the issue. The draft resolution essentially calls on the three concerned countries to refrain from any unilateral moves, including the filling of the GERD reservoir, and to work towards an agreement within six months.
“We are not giving up; we are still pushing; we know that things are not necessarily set for a resolution, but we are pushing still; this is the nature of things in the UNSC – we push until the very last minute,” said the informed Egyptian source.
He added that with or without a statement from the UNSC, the fact that the meeting is convened despite all the attempts of Ethiopia to block it is a clear message on the need to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, the same source said Egypt will continue to work with all concerned international players, “especially Washington”, to push for a deal “before the end of this year.”
Egyptian officials say that while the US administration might not be ready to get directly involved in the talks, it is willing to throw its weight behind the AU- sponsored negotiations. They said that the US ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the current chair of the AU, is getting quite involved in discussing the issue with the foreign ministry of Congo.
However, according to Raslan, if the US administration fails to put pressure on Abiy Ahmed to change his attitude, “no negotiations will go anywhere.”
According to Amany El-Tawil, another senior African affairs expert at the ACPSS, if the international community “will continue to be idle while Ethiopia is pushing its unilateral scheme through, then it could be a matter of time before the rules of the game will have to change – sometime, somehow.”