“We know the limitations of any possible UN Security Council action could produce on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] crisis. But the pursuit of international support is not the only option we have to handle the GERD crisis,” said a senior Egyptian official when asked to comment on recent developments in the dispute between Egypt and Sudan on one hand, and Ethiopia, on the other.
The official spoke on Monday, hours before Egypt received a letter from the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Resources notifying Cairo of the beginning of the second filling of the GERD reservoir.
The Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation issued a statement in response, describing the second filling as a “disturbing and alarming” unilateral action.
Ethiopia’s original plans envisaged a second filling of a little under 14 bcm. Delays in the construction of the dam, however, mean the figure is unlikely to rise much above nine bcm.
“The Ethiopian government is falling behind schedule in paying the construction companies, which has delayed building,” said another informed Egyptian official. He said it remained unclear whether or not Ethiopia will be able to fill nine bcm or if the amount will be around five bcm, the amount of the first filling last July.
According to Cairo-based Western diplomatic sources, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is “desperate” to get the first two turbines of the GERD to work so that he can deliver electricity as promised to the Ethiopian public. “He is in deep trouble already with his country caught up in a civil conflict,” said one diplomat. He added that with Ahmed’s international image as a modern and democratic young African leader so compromised, he needs to do something to regain status.
GERD was designed to be the largest hydrological dam on the River Nile, with a reservoir of 75 bcm. Egypt and Sudan have been in extended talks with Ethiopia for 10 years in an attempt to reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam in a manner that does not harm downstream countries.
Last month, Egypt and Sudan independently requested a UN Security Council session to address the issue after almost two years of unproductive African Union- (AU) sponsored negotiations. Addis Ababa has a consistent history of intransigence over the dam and now insists a legally binding deal on the filling and operation of GERD is unnecessary. In a letter addressed to the UN Security Council last month, in response to Egypt’s and Sudan’s letters, Ethiopia said it was beyond the Security Council’s mandate to interfere in the matter.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to meet to discuss the issue today, at 3pm Cairo local time. It will be the second meeting to discuss the dam: the first was held last year, in June, on Egypt’s request, and resulting in the Security Council recommending the AU to negotiations to secure a fair deal.
Expectations that the Security Council will push to expand the AU-sponsored negotiations to include the UN, US, and EU, a move Khartoum has long promoted and which Addis Ababa rejects, are low in Cairo. Nor are Khartoum and Cairo optimistic that the Security Council will adopt a resolution on the dam.
Egyptian and Sudanese diplomatic sources say that it was difficult enough to secure the meeting, though Egypt’s good relations with France, the current chair of the Security Council, and with Russia and China, helped. Egypt also has reassurances from “the highest level” that Washington will not allow Egyptian water interests to be compromised, and the full support of Tunisia, the current Arab member of the council.
None of this means the Security Council will adopt the draft resolution that Egypt has been trying to circulate calling for a six-month deadline for negotiators to reach a deal, and for the international community to firmly warn Ethiopia against any “unilateral filling”.
Ahead of the meeting France’s Permanent Representative Nicolas de Riviere said it was not the Security Council’s business to decide water allocations among Nile states. His statement was met with disappointment in Cairo and Khartoum, both of which maintain their “established” allocations of water are non-negotiable, and what they are looking for is a deal on the filling and operation of the GERD in line with the 2015 Declaration of Principles.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri arrived in New York on Monday for some high-level diplomatic lobbying ahead of the Security Council meeting. His Sudanese counterpart Mariam Sadik Al-Mahdi is also in New York.
According to a Sudanese diplomatic source, Khartoum and Cairo are trying hard to secure a presidential statement from the Security Council that clearly states a final, legally binding deal is needed before the end of this year.
“Already Ethiopia is going ahead with its plans as if no negotiations have taken place. We need to have a timeline and to know what will happen if Ethiopia continues to shrug everyone off,” he said.
In press statements made during the inauguration of a new military base on 3 July, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that Egypt could not accept open-ended negotiations on GERD and warned that while Egypt “has never threatened anyone with its military might” it couldn’t turn a blind eye to any compromise of its water rights.
“We have accepted, out of our commitment to Africa, to put up with some cuts from our allocations to help Ethiopia secure electricity and development but this is not to say that we are going to allow Ethiopia to cause us significant water harm. We, too, have to worry about irrigation and electricity,” said a source at the Ministry of Irrigation.
Egyptian and Sudanese official sources are already talking about a plan B. Sources say Cairo and Khartoum have agreed that if Ethiopia is going to give them a hard time, they are going to “give Ethiopia a hard time back”.
Prior to leaving for New York Shoukri told the press “all options are on the table.”
Speaking off record, Egyptian official sources say military action is far from being the only alternative.
“I am not saying we are or are not going there. This is not something anyone other than the president knows,” said one official source.
“I can say, though, that we are working on other plans to increase our water resources from the Nile and to make sure that Ethiopia’s intransigence is avenged.”
He explained that Egypt is working with other Nile Basin countries to reduce the amount of water wasted in marshlands and divert it back into the White Nile which does not pass through Ethiopia. Egypt is also working with Nile Basin countries to maximise their ability to benefit from their own water resources for irrigation and electricity generation purposes so no one will “have to go to Ethiopia for water or electricity”.
“The Ethiopian scheme is to turn the GERD into a water bank and mega electricity generator. We are telling Ethiopia this is not going to happen as long as Egypt’s water rights are being compromised.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly