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GERD brinkmanship

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial , Wednesday 24 Mar 2021
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Ethiopia is deliberately pushing Egypt and Sudan to the brink with its announcement that it will begin the second stage of filling the Renaissance dam reservoir in two months. Its haughty dismissal of Sudan’s proposal that an international quartet should mediate the dispute over the dam as a “ruse” does not help. The Sudanese Foreign Ministry has cautioned that the second filling would cause severe harm to millions of Sudanese and that the Ethiopian government was fully aware of the grave consequences. Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadik Al-Mahdi stressed that her country had “no intention to create mayhem or embark on war” and that it was willing to accept any initiative that would remedy the problems without jeopardising any of the concerned parties. She added that the international quartet initiative Khartoum launched was meant to support and facilitate the mission of the African Union (AU). 

Unfortunately, Addis Ababa was incapable of appreciating this overture. Egyptian and Sudanese diplomacy only meets with Ethiopian snubs as the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman pointed out after Addis’ recent announcement. “It is regrettable,” he said, “that Ethiopian officials use the language of sovereignty while talking about utilising the resources of a transboundary river. An international river is jointly owned by all the countries on its banks and none of them has the right to assert sovereignty or monopolise control over it. Moreover, the available natural resources should be utilised for the benefit of all the peoples of the countries that share the river in accordance with the principles of international law, foremost among which are cooperation, fairness and avoidance of harm.”

The crux of the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) resides in Ethiopia’s lack of the political will needed to resolve the dispute in a manner consistent with such universal principles. Instead, it undermines the AU’s mediation efforts, forcing Cairo and Khartoum to turn to the international community and request the formation of a quartet headed and facilitated by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and including the US, the EU and the UN in the hope that this mediating agency will ensure the efficacy of the negotiating process and help Cairo, Khartoum and Addis reach an agreement over GERD in the coming months.

In view of the dangers of Ethiopian unilateralism, it is more urgent than ever to promote a peaceful solution. One step towards this would be to appeal to the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution prohibiting Ethiopia from proceeding with the filling of the reservoir because of the grave threat this presents to the downriver nations. It should be borne in mind, here, that there exist no corroborated data on the structural integrity of the dam and no tripartite agreement on the rules for filling and operating it. Ethiopia’s persistence in its unilateral actions thus constitutes an outright act of aggression against Sudan and Egypt. 

Before talks resume, the stakeholders must first resolve their dispute over the role of the international quartet. Egypt and Sudan believe that quartet should act as a mediator to help the negotiations move forward while Addis insists that it should only act as an observer. If they can not reach a viable compromise on this question, then this is another compelling reason why Cairo and Khartoum should return to the UN Security Council, the world’s leading international organisation which has both the ability to conduct negotiations and offer recommendations. More importantly, given the urgency of the situation, the UNSC has the power to adopt and enforce binding resolutions and/or refer the matter to the International Court of Justice.  

On the other hand, many experts are of the opinion that the UNSC route is not easy. It involves other criteria not directly related to the crisis at hand, such as close relations with the five permanent members on the Security Council. The experts also remind us that the decisions of this body are shaped by politics and not just by the validity of the rights demands of the concerned parties. This is why many countries tend to rely more on the UNSC’s mission to preserve international peace and security. It was this context that undoubtedly informed President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s telephone conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. In that call, the Egyptian president underscored the extreme urgency of the question of the Ethiopian Dam. Describing the issue as “a matter of national security,” he stressed that Egypt would continue to press for guarantees of its water rights through a legal and binding agreement that includes clear rules for the filling and operation of the dam. 

Satellite imagery and other evidence show that Ethiopia is continuing to heighten the dam in preparation for the second filling. This matter must be included in the international agenda soon because of the risks it poses to millions of people on the banks of the Nile. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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