Arab League Permanent Representative to the UN Maged Abdel-Fattah on Tuesday said that the UN Security Council is waiting to hear from the current chair of the African Union (AU), President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, on the outcome of AU-sponsored talks for a negotiated agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Last Friday, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan started a new round of video conference talks in the hope of settling differences that have persisted throughout on-off negotiations since the signing of the Declaration of Principles by the three countries in Khartoum in March 2015.
The AU-sponsored talks were agreed during a limited, video-conferenced African summit on 26 June, and then by a UNSC meeting that convened, also via video conference, on 29 June at the request of Egypt.
There has been no sign so far of any progress in the talks that are tentatively set to end on Friday. Throughout the week, statements coming from Cairo have been apprehensive about the possible outcome.
On Tuesday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that his country will shortly start the first filling of GERD, a mega dam with a 74 billion m3 reservoir, with or without an agreement with downstream Sudan and Egypt.
Abdel-Fattah spoke on the phone from New York following Ahmed’s statements. He said that the UNSC will “wait for the briefing of President Ramaphosa as part of the cooperation with the AU” before deciding its next moves.
Abdel-Fattah said that he and the permanent representatives of the Arab states in New York have been meeting with the UN secretary-general (UNSG), the consecutive French and German rotated chairs of the UNSC, and with representatives of the permanent and non-permanent members of the UNSC.
“We have asserted that, contrary to suggestions offered in some quarters, neither Egypt nor Sudan opposes the development plans of Ethiopia,” Abdel-Fattah said. “To the contrary, Egypt has been helping Tanzania and Kenya with the building of barrages.”
Abdel-Fattah said that the Arab delegations in New York told the UNSG and members of the UNSC that the concerns of the two downstream states relate to their fears over water shortages, especially in the case of Egypt which is already suffering water poverty, and over possible faults in the construction of the dam that could place downstream states, especially Sudan, at risk of inundation.
“Last week we met with the UNSG Antonio Guterres who said he is following the matter closely, especially after having received letters from the three countries [Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan] on the issue.”
Abdel-Fattah added that Guterres has been supporting the AU-sponsored talks not just at the political, but also at the technical level through the input of the UN Environment and Development Programmes which have offered advice to the AU and to Sudan, the country which initiated the resumption of the three-way talks following failure of the three countries to reach an agreement earlier in the year.
Abdel-Fattah said, Guterres is waiting to see the outcome of the ongoing talks and has been hopeful that the three countries, with the help of the AU, will be able to manage the remaining points of disagreement.
“When we met him he said that he was under the impression that the three countries had finalised around 95 per cent of an agreement but we explained to him that the remaining five per cent are particularly crucial points as they relate to the legal nature of the agreement, the filling and operation of the GERD, not just during the first filling but also during seasons of draught and prolonged draught, and the legal dispute mechanism.”
Abdel-Fattah added that during the meeting with the UNSG he and the Arab permanent representatives to the UN pointed out that it is common practice for countries involved in the operation of dams to resort to legal dispute mechanisms “which makes it very important for the three riparian countries to agree on a mechanism”.
According to Abdel-Fattah, once the outcome of the current talks is announced the Arab missions in New York will work in coordination with a committee that has been set by the Arab League, including the secretariat of the pan-Arab organisation, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Iraq, to decide their next request to the UNSC.
“Let us wait and see. If an agreement is reached then obviously the UNSC will meet to welcome and endorse the agreement. If there is no agreement then that is a different situation, and if there is no agreement and any of the countries decided to pursue a unilateral measure, that is yet another situation.
“Whatever we do, we will be working with full commitment to the principles of Arab-African cooperation because clearly this is not an Arab-African dispute, far from it; it is a process of negotiations for three countries in the pursuit of collective welfare.”
Abdel-Fattah accepted that in case of the AU failing to help the three countries reach a deal then it will be a tricky moment for the UNSC.
“Let us acknowledge the fact that the UNSC is often unable to fix difficult situations like the ones in Syria or Libya,” Abdel-Fattah said. He added that several members of the UNSC have their own problems relating to dams and rivers “and consequently they would not wish for the precedent of council involvement in this issue.
“Obviously there is also the fact that this is a highly technical issue and the UNSC might need a lot of technical expertise and advice to be able to take conclusive positions on it.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly