Muawad Mustafa Rashid
According to news articles, the Security Council issued on 15th September 2021, a presidential statement on the GERD (S/PRST/2021/18) in which it calls for the resumption of the AU-led negotiations to reach a “binding agreement” on the dam’s filling and operation. After the adoption, the representative of India took the floor to deliver a statement and said that “as a general rule, transboundary water issues do not belong to the domain of the UN Security Council”. India went on to stress that the text does not constitute a “precedent for the Council to intervene or adjudicate in any other transboundary water disputes”.
The negotiations on the presidential statement were prolonged and difficult. Tunisia initially proposed a resolution on the issue, but following Council members’ inability to agree on this product, decided to pursue a presidential statement. It circulated a first draft of the presidential statement in early August and held several rounds of negotiations. It seems that the draft presidential statement set to be adopted this afternoon is the fourth version of the text.
The ongoing dispute concerns a major dam on the Blue Nile and dates back to 2011 when Ethiopia started the construction of the GERD. The hydropower dam is reported to have an expected capacity of 6,000 megawatts and to cost $4 billion. While Ethiopia argues that the dam is vital for its development, downriver countries Egypt and Sudan have expressed concern that the GERD threatens their water supply.
In March 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles on the GERD in which they committed to the equitable and reasonable use of water resources. However, disagreements among the three states have persisted on some aspects of the functioning of the dam, including the filling and operations of the GERD during periods of drought and a dispute resolution mechanism, preventing the parties from reaching common ground. Negotiations on the outstanding issues, including under the auspices of the AU, have yielded little progress.
The dispute was first discussed by the Security Council on 29 June 2020, in conjunction with the first filing of the GERD by Ethiopia. When Addis Ababa’s intention to move forward with the second filling of the dam became clear earlier this year, the dispute again garnered international attention.
On 15 June, following a meeting requested by Egypt and Sudan, the League of Arab States (LAS) adopted a resolution which called on the UN Security Council to discuss the dispute and on Ethiopia to refrain from filling the dam without first having reached an agreement with the countries affected. In a 15 June statement, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the LAS resolution “in its entirety”. Tunisia— a member of both the UN Security Council and the LAS—has raised the issue within the Security Council, requesting a meeting on the GERD (which was held on 8 July) and leading the negotiations on a Council product.
Tunisia first circulated a draft Security Council resolution on the GERD on 2 July. Following the 8 July briefing, Tunisia circulated a revised draft. However, it appears that there was insufficient support for the text to be adopted. Tunisia circulated an initial draft of the presidential statement on 5 August. Following comments by Council members, a first revised draft was put under silence until 16 August, a deadline which was later extended to 17 August. After Kenya broke silence on the statement on 17 August, a second revised draft was circulated by Tunisia and put under silence on the same day. However, Kenya broke the silence on the draft again. A third revised version was circulated by Tunisia on 2 September, with a read-through on 3 September and comments were submitted by 7 September. A fourth revised version was circulated on Monday (13 September) and passed the silence procedure yesterday (14 September).
It seems that an agreement on the draft statement became possible through compromise and the considerable scaling back of the content of the text. A notable caveat in the draft statement is that the Council “underscores” that the “statement does not set out any principles or precedent in any other transboundary water disputes”. This language is intended to address concerns by several Council members that the adoption of a Council product on the GERD could create a precedent where the Council would be called to intervene in transboundary water disputes across the globe. During the 8 July Council meeting, several members noted that these types of disagreements are better solved regionally and through dialogue among the parties involved.
Kenya called on the parties “to recommit to negotiating in good faith within the AU-led process” and expressed its “total confidence that our Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese brothers and sisters will make the principle of African solutions for African challenges a reality”, while Niger called on “all parties to prioritize reaching a regional and African solution to the GERD issue”. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines referred to Chapter VIII of the UN Charter (which encourages the peaceful resolution of local disputes by regional arrangements or agencies as long as their efforts are consistent with the principles and purposes of the UN) and said that “the African Union is best-suited to facilitate the pacific settlement of disputes on the motherland”. Mexico also referenced Chapter VIII in its statement. India stated that “transboundary-water disputes should ideally be resolved through mechanisms agreed upon by the primary stakeholders and taking into account the respective rights and issues of technical details, historical usage, and socioeconomic aspects”.
Another apparent contentious reference that appeared in earlier iterations of the text, but was removed in the final version, requested the Secretary-General to report on the dispute to the Council within six months. This would have placed the GERD on the Security Council’s agenda, which proved unacceptable to some Council members.
The overall tone of the statement has also been considerably softened during the lengthy negotiation process. In the draft presidential statement, the Security Council “encourages” Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to restart the AU-led negotiations “to finalize expeditiously the text of [a] mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD”. While having a reference to a “binding agreement” was arguably one of the priorities of the states who called for a Council product on the GERD, a previous iteration of the statement included stronger language “requesting” Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to reach such an agreement. Similarly, the Council calls upon the three countries to resume the negotiation process “constructively and cooperatively”, while a previous version directly called upon them “to refrain from making any statements or taking any action that may jeopardize the negotiation process”.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Prof. Yassir Abbas has informed the Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, Dr. Seleshe Bekele the protest of Sudan over the technical data that was provided by Ethiopia to Sudan last July on the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The Minister’s letter to his Ethiopian counterpart stated that the technical data provided by Ethiopia to Sudan is inaccurate and violates the ICOLD World Declaration and the international law governing the use of transboundary watercourses.
Abbas numerated the negative impacts on Sudan as a result of the incorrect information and the absence of coordination on the filling of GERD.
The Minister urged his Ethiopian counterpart to accept an enhanced mediation process let by the African Union to assist the three countries i.e. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt in reaching a win-win agreement on the GERD.
The letter of the Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources to his Ethiopian counterpart was sent on 13th September (2 days before the UNSC in which he urged Ethiopia to accept an enhanced mediation process let by the African Union to assist the three countries i.e. Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt in reaching a win-win agreement on the GERD is just what is stipulated in the UNSC presidential statement issued on 15th September 2021 in which the UNSC called for the resumption of the AU-led negotiations to reach a “binding agreement” on the dam’s filling and operation.
This simply means that the Sudanese stance towards the GERD dispute is correct and expresses its desire to strengthen the AU process to reach an amicable agreement that serves the interests of the three countries.
It is high time for Ethiopia to reconsider its unilateral steps on GERD and to positively deal with the UNSC presidential statement by providing all possible assistance to the AU-led negotiations process to allow for striking an amicable agreement, considering that the Blue Nile is international transboundary water that should be dealt with in accordance to the international law.