ISSN 2330-717X

Ethiopia Dam Dispute: Neither Security Council Nor AU Is Grasping GERD Nettle – Analysis


By Peter Fabricius*

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the long-simmering dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over Ethiopia’s great dam on the Blue Nile now seem to be stuck. The matter had been batted to the United Nations Security Council again this month, only to be sent back to the African Union (AU).

The AU took over as the lead mediator in June last year after South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, as AU chair, persuaded the three disputants not to refer the dispute to the Security Council. But a year of on and off negotiations – first by South Africa and then by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the new AU chair – failed to resolve the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute.

So Egypt and Sudan – backed by the League of Arab States – took it back to the Security Council. But on 8 July, the council refused to take up the issue and sent it back to the AU. There are no signs that an agreement on the format of negotiations, let alone a resolution, is in sight. In the meantime, Ethiopia has proceeded to fill the dam for a second year, angering Egypt and Sudan and heightening tensions.

Egypt contends that the 74 billion cubic metre dam, designed to produce hydroelectric power to drive Ethiopia’s development, will threaten the supply of the Nile water on which it is almost entirely dependent. Sudan worries that GERD, which is just 15 kilometres from its border, could damage its own dams and riparian lands.

The two countries are seeking a legally binding agreement on the management of the water flow from the dam and a formal dispute resolution mechanism. Ethiopia insists that it cannot be bound by other countries on how it operates its own dam.

Although South Africa was no more successful than anyone else in mediating a resolution, some observers say that it tried harder than DRC. The DRC is naturally putting a different spin on that. During the July Security Council debate, the DRC ambassador read a statement by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula Apala Pen’ Apala, claiming ‘several positive developments’ in DRC’s mediation.

These included a ministerial conference of the three countries in April and visits by DRC President Etienne Tshisekedi to Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan in May. The minister added that Tshisekedi had reported to the AU Bureau on 24 June on his efforts and that a report was forthcoming. A summary document had also been drafted, which would soon be presented to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt as the basis for negotiations.

Tshisekedi’s proposal was for a two-step approach. First, the most pressing issue of the current filling of the GERD would be addressed. Next, guarantees would be sought for a comprehensive agreement on the subsequent filling and operation of the dam, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa, told the Security Council. But events have overtaken Tshisekedi’s negotiations. Even as the council was debating, Ethiopia was again filling the dam.

The Security Council was nearly unanimous in passing the GERD ball hurriedly back to the AU – a major setback for Egypt and Sudan. The Trump administration had seemed to be favouring Egypt over Ethiopia in this dispute. But President Joe Biden’s UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield – a former assistant secretary of state for Africa – was very firm that the AU should handle the GERD file.

Was it irresponsible for the Security Council to refuse to take up the issue when the AU has proven incapable of resolving it? Egypt and Sudan seem to think so. They regard the referral of the dispute to the AU – ostensibly in the interests of seeking an ‘African solution to an African problem’ – as a way for Ethiopia to avoid real negotiations.

Others might argue that GERD isn’t an issue for the Security Council or even perhaps the AU, since some water disputes in Africa have been resolved without recourse to either. Ethiopia is also, arguably, under no obligation to get the approval of another country to build and operate a dam on its territory.

But whatever the precedents in sharing regional watercourses may be, the GERD dispute has the potential to trigger conflict. That makes it a legitimate issue for the Security Council and the AU, both of which have a mandate to defuse conflict.

The passing of the buck by the Security Council prompts Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, to remark that, ‘The Security Council is never shy to sideline the AU – in the Libya matter last year it completely ignored the AU position. It thus seems convenient for some of the P5 to use the excuse of subsidiarity when it suits them not to be involved.

‘The challenge is that the less the Security Council is involved, the higher the risk that issues will escalate. And if there is no serious movement regarding roles and responsibilities, the function of preventing conflicts, that is so important for both the UN and AU, will fail.’

Priyal Singh, Researcher at the ISS, agrees that the GERD issue is ‘a vital test of the relevance of key multilateral organisations.’ However, he adds that more focus should be given to the DRC’s role in the mediation and that of the AU Bureau. Singh believes there is a consensus that Tshisekedi could have been more active on this file.

So quo vadis GERD? Tensions among the three disputants will surely rise, adding to irritants in relations such as the Ethiopia-Sudan border dispute and other sources of regional instability, such as the Tigray civil war.

Singh believes that the GERD dispute will likely only be resolved through some form of club diplomacy between the key stakeholders. He suggests that multilateral organisations like the Security Council and the AU will sit this one out until the situation has deteriorated much further. That is not a comforting scenario.

*About the author: Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Source: This article was published by ISS Today.

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The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) partners to build knowledge and skills that secure Africa’s future. Our goal is to enhance human security as a means to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity. The ISS is an African non-profit organisation with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal.

3 thoughts on “Ethiopia Dam Dispute: Neither Security Council Nor AU Is Grasping GERD Nettle – Analysis

  • August 1, 2021 at 8:33 pm

    It’s challenging to address GERD issues, but I think the article has attempted to be balanced. It should be noted that the root of this problem extends well beyond the Ethiopian dam. It is a matter of future development and food security in Eastern Africa.
    It is essential to observe that the GERD issue is not the real problem, as hydroelectric dams do not consume water. Egypt challenges the sovereignty of Ethiopia by insisting that Ethiopia enter into a binding agreement that will ban Ethiopia from using its water. Using the unfortunate and unjust use of water as a precedent, Egypt asserts with arrogance the river’s entire property.
    And so, every time Egypt thinks that things are not going as they planned, it undermines the meeting and will insist that the Africans fail, so let go to the Europeans or the UN. Irrespective of which party meditates, Egyptian water needs should never invalidate 11 riparian’s right to use their water. Lastly, it is utterly unacceptable that Ethiopians are dying of hunger as Egypt plants cotton for export with their water.

  • August 2, 2021 at 12:59 am

    The Nile Valley is made up of 11 countries namely Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia Eriteria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Congo each with a varying degree on dependence on the water resources of River Nile. in 1900 the total population of these countries was 50million people. By 1950 the population had grown to 90million. By 2000 the Nile valley’s population had grown to 380miilion. Today this population is 549million and is projected to have swelled to 1 billion people by 2050. Projections show that the total population in these countries will be almost 1.5billion by 2075 and close to 2billion people by 2100! The population explosion is taking place against the dire fact of diminishing water resources within the Nile valley due to climate change and environmental damage both of which are increasingly leading diminishing amounts and changing patterns of rainfall. Upstream countries which traditionally relied on rain water for their agriculture are increasingly turning to surface water resources for irrigation. This is the biggest problem for downstream countries like Egypt and no kind of treaty or binding agreement it signs with any of the upstream countries will change this. Upstream countries will consume more and more of the available surface water – rivers, lakes and more – in their lands. The GERD is just that shiny object that has arrested Egypt’s attention when the real problems threatening its existence lie somewhere else. Egypt would do better for itself if leads the other 10 Nile riparian countries into a well thought out basin-wide water use collaborative arrangement such as the Nile Basins Initiative which unfortunately it has worked so hard to frustrate.

  • August 2, 2021 at 12:12 pm

    The GERD solution is in the hands of Egypt and Sudan. They have to stop the colonial sentiment, the idea of binding agreement. There will never be a binding agreement on GERD, forget it , it is totally out of question. In the whole world there has never been a binding agreement on trans-boundry rivers.
    It is useless to send the issue to USA, UN, EU, by Egypt and Sudan. As you said it finally, the three nations has to sit (according to their agreement of 2015) and solve their problems. Ethiopia has full right (100000%) to use its water resources for what ever purpose it likes( without significantly harming Egypt and Sudan), and for these it will never ask Egypt or Sudan.


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