With the flood season inching closer without any breakthrough in talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt and Sudan sent separate letters this month asking the UN Security Council to hold a session to address the issue. Meanwhile, several parties are hinting loudly that there is a possibility of reaching a partial or interim agreement.
“The Security Council is capable of defining sound technical principles to run rivers in a way that protects the interest of all parties without causing great damage to downstream countries,” said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
Egypt’s top diplomat stressed that Cairo cannot accept sustaining any damage from GERD, whether the second filling is completed or not.
“We will not compromise our water rights. We will use all the appropriate tools at the appropriate time,” he added.
After an emergency meeting held in the Qatari capital Doha at the request of Egypt and Sudan on 15 June the Arab League also called on the Security Council to hold an urgent session on GERD.
Ali Al-Hefni, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister, pointed that by referring the issue to the Security Council for a second time, Egypt is escalating the issue.
“We adhered to African Union-sponsored talks till the end,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that Cairo is now keen to explain its stand and gain diplomatic support from different countries.
Taking the issue to the Security Council was only done after things had come to a standstill under the AU, he explained. “The step was taken after deliberations and communications with states that will have a say in the matter. We know who will support us and who will not,” Al-Hefni added.
Samir Ghattas, head of the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies and a former MP, believes the referral to the Security Council has come too late and with little preparation and coordination with the powers that have a say in that matter.
“What are we after? A strong resolution that will stop the project altogether according to Article 7 of the charter, or mere recommendations?” he asked.
Ghattas says the Security Council is unlikely to propose anything beyond the involved parties return to the negotiating table, and questioned whether there had been adequate consultations with the five permanent members of the council who can veto any resolution.
Egypt requested the first open session on GERD in June 2020. During the session the council urged Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to reach a consensus and warned against unilateral actions.
Two weeks ago, Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi officially asked the council to hold a session as soon as possible to review developments in the GERD dispute. She asked the international body to urge parties not to take any unilateral actions, and called on Ethiopia not to go ahead with the second filling of the dam since it would aggravate the conflict and threaten regional security.
Al-Mahdi warned that if Ethiopia went ahead with the second filling of GERD, it would endanger the safety of millions of Sudanese citizens. The letter also included details of Sudanese efforts over the past year to reach a legally-binding agreement through the AU-sponsored negotiations that reached a deadlock in April due to a lack of political will by Ethiopia to reach an agreement that meets the needs of the three countries.
Ghattas believes any partial, rather than a comprehensive and legally binding agreement covering the filling of the dam’s reservoir and its operation, will impact catastrophically on the GERD file, though he does not rule out that Sudan may push for a partial solution.
Sudan’s foreign minister has tied any partial agreement to four guarantees: commitment to a time limit of six months between the signing of the partial agreement and a final agreement; negotiations picking up from where they left off rather than starting from scratch; effective international mediation led by the AU and including the US, EU and UN, and a clear mechanism to punish any intransigent or procrastinating party.
“Such an agreement will allow Addis Ababa to go ahead with the second filling with the blessing of Khartoum and allow it to procrastinate for another six months of AU-led negotiations, or possibly till the next flood seasons when another filling is due,” said one diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
A meeting of the AU bureau last week left little room for hope that AU-led negotiations will bear fruit. The meeting ended without any recommendations or calls for the three countries to return to negotiations.
That meeting — held virtually — had been expected to discuss developments in the GERD file in depth. Instead, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi briefly informed virtual attendees about the outcome of previous negotiations. Sudan boycotted the meeting.
Meanwhile, irrigation ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan held three-way talks last weekend, their first meeting since tripartite negotiations reached a deadlock in April. No outcome to the meeting was disclosed.
“Why are we pushing for AU-led talks or a Security Council role when either of the two main investors in Ethiopia, Saudi and UAE, could play a more effective role?” asks Ghattas.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly