During the next two weeks, Egypt is planning to upscale its diplomatic campaign to secure international support for a legally binding agreement with Ethiopia and Sudan on the filling and the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with clear mitigation measures and clear dispute settlement mechanism.
According to an informed Egyptian official, it is crucial for Cairo to keep toiling on the diplomatic front so “the world tells Ethiopia it needs to come round to a fair agreement based on international law that takes into account the welfare of all three countries.”
The source spoke hours after the UN Security Council (UNSC) held a video conference session on Monday evening at Egypt’s request.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri read a statement to the meeting. He reiterated Cairo’s wish to secure a fair deal but insisted that “a threat of potentially existential proportions has emerged that could encroach on the single source of livelihood of over 100 million Egyptians.
“GERD, a colossal project that Ethiopia has constructed across the Blue Nile, could endanger the security and very survival of an entire nation by imperiling its wellspring of sustenance.
“While we recognise the importance of this project to the development goals of the Ethiopian people, which we share and support, it is essential to realise that this mega-dam, which is Africa’s largest hydropower facility, potentially threatens the welfare, wellbeing, and existence of millions of Egyptian and Sudanese citizens.”
The key issue for Egypt, according to Shoukri, is that “the unilateral filling and operation of the dam, without an agreement that includes protection from significant harm for downstream communities, will heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region.
“Despite the fact that an international consultancy firm was contracted to conduct studies on the effects and impacts of the dam, the studies were obstructed and, as a result, never completed. Nor do we have any solid guarantees regarding the safety and structural soundness of the GERD. In the absence of sufficient scientific data communities downstream of this great structure appear condemned to live in the dark shadow of a great unknown.”
Shoukri added that “if, God-forbid, the GERD experiences structural failures or faults it would place the Sudanese people in unimaginable peril and expose Egypt to unthinkable hazards.”
Having reviewed the lengthy road that Egypt has taken in pursuit of a fair deal that allows Ethiopia to generate electricity without inflicting significant harm on Egypt’s already inadequate water resources, Shoukri called on the UNSC to press for an agreement prior to any filling of the dam reservoir.
“While our position remains that the only viable solution is to reach a fair and balanced agreement, Egypt will uphold and protect the vital interests of its people. Survival is not a question of choice,” Shoukri told the UNSC.
He appealed to the UNSC to carefully consider a draft resolution offered by Egypt that appeals to the three countries to work in good faith to reach a fair, comprehensive and legally binding agreement and to refrain from taking unilateral action to fill the dam.
Taye Atske-Selassie, Ethiopia’s permanent representative to the UN, argued that the UNSC was not the place to discuss the progress of GERD negotiations, an issue he said was more properly dealt with in the framework of the African Union.
“Let me be clear. Ethiopia does not believe the issue being discussed today has a legitimate place in the Security Council,” said Atske-Selassie.
“It sets a bad precedent and opens a Pandora’s box. This council should not be a forum for settling scores and exerting diplomatic pressure. It is regrettable that the council has allowed itself to be politicised in this manner.”
According to a UN-based Arab diplomat, the Ethiopian delegation in New York “tried very hard” to delay the UNSC session and is still attempting to sideline the issue though there is considerable “push back” — “not just from Egypt but from several Arab delegations”.
In press statements to Egyptian TV Channel 1 on Monday evening Maged Abdel-Fattah, permanent representative of the Arab League to the UNSC, said the Arab group in New York would hold a meeting with the UN secretary-general to press the need for the UNSC to continue dealing with the matter. The support of Sudan is crucial if the issue is to stay “well-placed on the table of the UNSC”, he said, but unfortunately Khartoum is not “really pushing for the UNSC to be involved in the matter”.
Tellingly, in his statement to the UNSC on Monday Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig, Sudan’s permanent representative to the UN, did not demand a clear UNSC commitment to follow up on the issue.
“Clearly there is a discrepancy on this matter between Egypt and Sudan,” the New York-based Arab diplomat said.
Earlier this month Sudan proposed the resumption of talks in the hope of finding a deal. It offered a draft agreement based on elements that the delegations of the three countries had agreed to in Washington in autumn 2019/winter 2020 during talks facilitated by the US and the World Bank.
Seven sessions of video conference negotiations ensued until the three delegations hit yet another impasse on 17 June.
Following this failed attempt to secure a deal Egypt sent a letter on 19 June to the UNSC asking it to convene and discuss the matter.
Two days later Ethiopia sent its own letter to the UNSC disputing Egypt’s request. Then Sudan sent a letter to the UNSC calling for support for the continuation of the three-way negotiations.
In his statement before the UNSC, Siddig said that “Sudan strongly believes that reaching an agreement on the guidelines and rules, before the commencement of the filling of the GERD, is necessary to avoid putting millions of lives and communities at risk.”
According to the Egyptian official, this language “is good but it is still not strong enough”.
Egypt was hoping that Sudan would appeal to the UNSC to demand a halt to the filling of the GERD pending an agreement between the three countries.
More consultations between Cairo and Khartoum are underway, the official said. “Already Sudan has improved its position to support our call for an agreement prior to the filling, but we are hoping that this will be expressed in much clearer and affirmative language,” he said.
Last Friday, during a limited summit of the African Union chaired by South Africa, a non-permanent member of the UNSC, Egypt agreed to continue with technical and legal negotiations provided Ethiopia does not take any unilateral action on the filling of the reservoir.
Despite statements from Cairo and Khartoum on Friday to the effect that Ethiopia had committed to not start the filling prior to an agreement, Addis Ababa said that it would basically give the negotiations two to three weeks while it finishes construction work necessary for the first filling to start in mid-July “as scheduled”.
“The next two to three weeks are going to be hard work as we examine all options,” the Egyptian official said.
In addition to the resumption of three-way technical negotiations Cairo will be looking at “ideas” that the African Union Chair Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to float in the next few days.
A bigger role for the African Union in managing talks was stressed by almost all speakers during the UNSC session.
“We are going to see what we will be offered and we will consider our options in view of the volume of political support we are able to build,” the Egyptian official said.
So far Egypt has refused to commit to any deal that is not legally binding and lacks mitigation and legal dispute mechanisms. Egypt has also declined a partial agreement on the first filling.
Whether or not these positions change depends on how the negotiation process unfolds in the next two weeks.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly