Negotiations are in progress in New York over a proposed Security Council resolution calling on all parties in the dispute over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) to return to the negotiating table. The goal would be to hammer out a binding agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam. The negotiations would take place under African Union (AU) sponsorship and be attended by key international observers. Egyptian and Sudanese diplomats are shuttling between influential world capitals in order to clarify the Sudanese-Egyptian position and the need for a binding agreement before the dispute reaches a point it can no longer be contained. Perhaps the most significant recent development in this regard was the statement released by the EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Commission on 8 July, expressing the EU’s disappointment with Ethiopia for having proceeded with the second filling unilaterally and calling for a “clear roadmap” to ensure that serious negotiations between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa resume as soon as possible.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri’s talks in Brussels were consistent with this and with Egypt’s desire to break the vicious circle of negotiating rounds with Addis Ababa that lead nowhere. It is not enough just to return to the negotiating table. There have to be genuine guarantees, especially on the technical track, that the talks under AU auspices will not end in failure again. The very fact that the UN Security Council (UNSC) convened to discuss this crisis is proof of how precarious it is, especially after the Ethiopian speech exposed Addis’ inveterate intransigence and persistent unilateralism. The Ethiopian spokesman made it clear that his government has no desire to consult with or share information with the downstream nations despite the peril GERD poses to Sudan and Egypt both in terms of water supply and the possible structural instability of the dam itself.
The positions of Egypt and Sudan, on the one hand, and Ethiopia, on the other, are so far apart on some crucial issues that third parties are needed to break the impasse between them. The parties most able to do this are the UN, the EU and the US. Egypt and Sudan want a timeframe for the anticipated new round of negotiations and they want the output to be consistent with the rules and principles governing the management of shared watercourses, as this is the best means to achieve sustainable development in all three countries, the fulfillment of their rights, and the sound, equitable and optimal usage of Nile waters. Egypt, which has consistently advocated such principles, has never denied Ethiopia’s right to develop and to generate electricity. Indeed, Egypt took the lead in submitting proposals for electricity grid linkups.
History tells us that crises of this sort start when the international community ignores the signs they are looming and that they end when the international community acts together to solve them before they escalate into major and extended conflicts. Although many UNSC members are reluctant to embroil that body in water disputes, which is understandable in the context of the intricate and sensitive nature of international relations, Egypt strongly believes that pre-emptive diplomacy is of the essence in order to forestall further deterioration of the situation after Ethiopia initiated the second filling of GERD, in a direct challenge to Cairo and Khartoum, and in defiance of international norms and principles. Ethiopia is not interested in talks that would lead to a binding agreement. It dismisses the notion of a dispute settlement mechanism and it refuses to discuss the dangers of drought and prolonged drought. In short, it places no value on the lives and wellbeing of millions of people in Sudan and Egypt. This type of behaviour can only generate more severe conflict in the near future.
If regional and international peace and security are to be preserved, then the countries that want to address this problem outside of the UNSC must treat Egypt and Sudan’s concerns seriously. International observers in any negotiating process must prove themselves effective in bridging points of view and imposing a roadmap. This is the only realistic alternative to the UNSC platform, which some fear would be too politically sensitive at this point as it would set a precedent for the international handling of water disputes while others caution that this is precisely the type of issue the UNSC should begin to consider in light of the spectre of mounting conflicts over water resources because of climate change.
The fact is that Ethiopia has already politicised GERD. The government there has capitalised on it for domestic gains and it has set its sights on regional gains, inspired by the unrealistic dream of weaponising water in order to impose its political hegemony over other Nile Basin countries.
International stakeholders in East Africa need to see Addis Ababa’s designs for what they are and act quickly to promote a roadmap to resolve this crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly