Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to start the second phase of filling the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a serious challenge not only to Egypt and Sudan, but also to the United Nations Security Council – due to meet to discuss the threat GERD poses to regional and international peace and security today.
Ethiopia’s message to the international community is simply: “We don’t care, we are going to set our own rules for how to use an international river, the Nile, even if that meant inflicting severe harm on tens of millions of Egyptian and Sudanese people.”
If the Security Council fails to live up to its responsibility for protecting international peace and security today, it will be a message to other countries that there are no laws or agreements regulating how to share vital water resources, and that countries can act unilaterally without any consideration for their neighbours. This fact alone shows why the international community should not hang around indifferently, or simply take note of the dispute and call upon all parties to continue negotiating. That will no longer work once the second filling starts.
The request by Egypt and Sudan to convene a Security Council meeting today for the second time in less than a year follows 10 years of hectic and fruitless negotiations in which Ethiopia practised all kinds of procrastination in order to avoid reaching a legally binding agreement on the gradual filling of GERD to avoid disastrous effects on the two nations.
The African Union (AU), of which Egypt is a founding member, the United States, the European Union and the Arab League have all mediated and offered proposals to Ethiopia to reach a fair and binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan. First claiming that it would only accept African mediation, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government went on to ignore detailed offers during lengthy AU-led rounds of negotiations to help achieve development in Ethiopia, providing abundant electricity, while causing no harm to Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt, in particular, has no source of water than the Nile; therefore, Addis Ababa can rest assured that Cairo, in close coordination with Khartoum, will take all necessary measures to protect the lives of its people.
Diplomacy has always been Egypt’s first recourse, historically and in the current dispute over GERD. The Deputy Director-General of Ethiopia’s East African Policy Research Institute (EAPRI) Birhanu Lenjiso, told a local news website that “the main pressure springs from Egypt’s durable diplomacy compared to Ethiopia.” He noted that “Egypt has at least three identities to work with. It wears the Arab League, African Union and Mediterranean-Europe caps. Egypt’s relations with the Arab League, its wealth compared with Ethiopia, and having academia in international institutions and countries strengthened the country diplomatically.”
Lenjiso is right. Egypt is strong on the diplomatic front, not just because of its multiple identities and its history, but also because it has a just case to present to the international community. While Prime Minister Ahmed is already facing strong international pressure and sanctions for alleged war crimes in the volatile Tigray region, this explains why his government has been strongly resisting any Security Council meeting on the GERD dispute.
As soon as Ethiopia officially notified Egypt on Monday of its plan to start the second phase of filling, Cairo immediately added the Ethiopian letter to the documents being presented to the Security Council as evidence of Addis Ababa’s ill intentions and total disregard for international law and order.
Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati confirmed that Egypt “categorically rejects” the commencement of the second filling of GERD, warning that such step “could escalate tensions with downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.” He described the move as a “blatant and dangerous” violation of international laws and norms as well as the Declaration of Principles agreement signed between the three African countries in 2015.
The utilisation of Nile resources is regulated by agreements that obligate Ethiopia to respect Egypt’s water rights and interests. This serious development reveals once more Ethiopia’s ill intention and its insistence on taking unilateral measures to force a fait accompli by filling and operating the Renaissance Dam without an agreement that takes into account the interests of the three countries and limits the damage does to the two downstream countries.
In this context, Ahmed’s statements on Monday make no sense. Ahmed said that the only thing that Ethiopia wants is to address the country’s demand for electricity without posing a threat to the downstream countries. “Ethiopia’s interest is just to address the country’s demand for electricity, to reduce the concerns of Sudan and Egypt as well as bring a lasting peace and prosperity for our region,” he told members of Ethiopian parliament.
But unilaterally launching the second phase of filling without a legally binding agreement is clearly not the way to reduce the concerns of Sudan and Egypt, or to bring about any prosperity in the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly