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Protecting Egypt’s lifeline

A look at Egypt’s unrelenting diplomacy to safeguard its share of Nile water

Attia Essawi , Wednesday 13 May 2020
Protecting Egypt’s lifeline
At 500 m3 per capita, Egypt receives the lowest amount of water of all Nile Basin countries
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To prevent Ethiopia from completing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and begin operations without first reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has appealed to the UN Security Council to prevail on Ethiopia to settle the dispute over the dam in a way that serves the interests of all parties and safeguards regional stability.

In a formal letter to the Security Council, Shoukri warned of the impact on peace and security in the region should Ethiopia begin filling the dam in July, without Egyptian or Sudanese approval.

He urged the Security Council to encourage Addis Ababa to sign the draft agreement prepared by the US Treasury Department, in collaboration with the World Bank.

Egypt has already initialled the agreement, despite Ethiopia not turning up for the scheduled signing ceremony. As Ethiopia is still refusing to either sign the agreement or return to the negotiating table, the chances are slim for ending the current deadlock in the absence of significant pressure being brought to bear on Addis Ababa.

On Monday, the Ethiopian irrigation minister said Ethiopia has “prepared a comprehensive document that provides sufficient response” to the complaint Egypt filed to the Security Council. Few expect Ethiopia to budge from its current position, which is to reject anything that might restrict its use of Blue Nile waters for agricultural and electricity generating purposes, regardless of how this impacts on downstream nations. It has been reported that Addis Ababa wants the Washington agreement to provide a fixed quota of Nile water for Ethiopia, and to allow Ethiopia to build as many dams as it likes on the river. It claims that 50 million Ethiopians live in the Blue Nile Basin, and the river is their main source of fresh water. Yet Ethiopia has 12 major rivers, 22 lakes and abundant underground water resources. It also receives 800 billion m3 of rainwater a year, half of the total amount of rainwater that falls on the 10 Nile Basin countries.

For any Security Council response to be effective, the US must back a strongly worded resolution calling on Addis Ababa to heed international laws and conventions regulating the use of transboundary watercourses. Under the UN Watercourses Convention, countries must take every appropriate measure to prevent significant harm to countries on the same watercourse.

The principle of avoidance of harm includes not just depriving others of their water rights but also severe impairment of previously existing agricultural and electricity generating facilities on the watercourse.

Washington could, of course, take the initiative and act itself. It could assert pressure on Addis Ababa to either sign the agreement that the Treasury Department and World Bank drafted, or to return to the negotiating table to resolve outstanding differences. Washington certainly has the leverage in the form of the economic and military assistance it gives Ethiopia, which included $1 billion in counter-terrorism assistance in 2018 alone. Regardless of the methods it chooses, Washington should follow through on President Donald Trump’s pledge that his administration will continue with its efforts to get the three countries to conclude an agreement, and US Treasury Security Steven Mnuchin should make it clear to Ethiopia that it must not commence filling the GERD reservoir until an agreement is reached. If Washington fails to act, either independently or through the Security Council, because it is preoccupied with the fight against coronavirus or with November’s presidential elections, the crisis will continue to seethe.

Egypt will not allow it to be swept under the carpet.

Egypt has other avenues to pursue. While it cannot ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to arbitrate — both parties need to make such a request — it can lodge a grievance against Ethiopia with the ICJ for violating existing agreements and conventions regulating hydraulic works on the Blue Nile, the Sobat and Atbara rivers and their tributaries.

Another alternative is to turn to the UN General Assembly for a resolution, which would avert the possibility of a veto being wielded by one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Such a resolution would bring powerful moral pressure to bear on Ethiopia.

Egypt could also ask Italy, China and other countries that have been assisting Ethiopia with the construction of GERD to suspend technical advice, construction and/or funding until the dispute over the dam is settled and Ethiopia signs a binding agreement. Cairo also has the option of asking friendly countries that have major investment projects in Ethiopia or that host large numbers of Ethiopian workers to intervene with Addis Ababa to encourage it to show the flexibility necessary to reach an agreement.

In March, Shoukri travelled to 16 Arab, African and European countries to explain Egypt’s position and highlight the flexibility Egypt has shown, the initiatives it has taken and the concessions it has made to try and resolve the dispute. His presentations put paid to Ethiopian propaganda that Egypt is seeking to obstruct construction of the dam in order to undermine Ethiopia’s right to pursue development. Egypt also exposed the many actions Ethiopia has taken to obstruct negotiations and other efforts to reach an agreement, including its boycott of the last round of talks in Washington in order to avoid signing the draft agreement.

Another positive outcome of Egypt’s diplomatic drive is that it has prepared the international community for any action Egypt might be forced to take to prevent the dam from going into operation before Addis Ababa commits to an agreement regulating its filling and operation in a manner that averts significant harm to Sudan and Egypt.

Egypt’s position is backed by Washington and the World Bank, which have witnessed Ethiopia’s intransigence over several negotiating rounds in Washington and its manoeuvring as it boycotted the last round, giving just one day’s notice that it would not to attend.

In addition to Upper Nile Basin countries — the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan — Shoukri’s tour also covered South Africa, the current chair of the African Union, Niger, one of the G5 Sahel states, France, a major partner in Ethiopian development, and Belgium, seat of the EU headquarters and a major contributor to peace-making and development efforts in Africa.

In his meetings with key officials in these countries, Shoukri drove home Egypt’s desire to reach a just, equitable and sustainable agreement that serves Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. Such an agreement was at hand thanks to the efforts of Washington and the World Bank, he said.

In addition to Shoukri’s tour, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry delegation headed by Assistant Minister for Arab Affairs Yasser Osman, and Deputy Assistant Minister for Nile Water Affairs Yasser Sorour, visited Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania. They presented letters from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressing the need for an agreement over GERD that safeguards the rights of all parties.

After the Arab League adopted a resolution backing Egypt’s position, Shoukri visited Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, France and Belgium. These countries’ leaders, who also received letters from President Al-Sisi, expressed understanding of the Egyptian viewpoint, and many of them lauded Egypt for its flexibility and constructiveness. For example, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi expressed his admiration for Egypt’s flexibility in efforts to reach an agreement such an existential matter. President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou also lauded Egyptian efforts and underscored the need to respect the principles of international law.

Shoukry noted that European officials were equally sympathetic, and appreciated Egypt’s flexibility.

They also understood the implications of Ethiopian intransigence for stability in the Horn of Africa.

“Europe feels it important to play a role in preventing any tensions in this region,” he said.

Stressing the need for Arab solidarity in defence of Egypt’s national security, Shoukri said that Egypt would remain in contact with its Arab partners on matters relating to Egypt’s water security, and with the US in its capacity as a sponsor of the tripartite negotiations over GERD.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

 

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