As UN discusses dam on the Nile, Ethiopia regrets bypassing of regional forums

The controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has taken a fresh turn with the UN Security Council taking up the issue on the urging of Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia termed this step a dangerous precedent as it took the negotiation process away from the African Union

July 11, 2021 by Pavan Kulkarni
The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2019. Photo: Reuters

Members of the Ethiopian diaspora in the US held a demonstration outside the UN headquarters in New York on Thursday, July 8 against the Security Council’s convening of a meeting to discuss for the second time the dispute over construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s biggest hydroelectric project.

The meeting on Thursday was held three days after Ethiopia started the second filling of this dam, aiming to collect 13.5 billion cubic meters of water this rainy season. This action has been criticized as unilateral by the Nile-dependent downstream countries, namely Egypt and Sudan, which have not yet reached an agreement with Ethiopia over water usage.

On their insistence, the Arab League, during a meeting in Qatar’s capital Doha on June 15, called on the UNSC to intervene and facilitate a negotiation which can conclude with a binding legal agreement between Ethiopia and the two downstream countries.

Ahead of the meeting on Thursday afternoon, Tunisia, the only Arab League country presently in the UNSC, submitted an Egyptian-Sudanese draft resolution to the Council urging “Ethiopia to refrain from continuing to unilaterally fill the GERD reservoir”.

The resolution also called on the “Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Sudan to resume negotiations at the joint invitation of the Chairperson of the African Union and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to finalize, within a period of six months, the text of a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD that ensures Ethiopia’s ability to generate hydropower from the GERD while preventing the inflicting of significant harm on the water security of downstream states.”

Al Ahram reported that the UNSC will put an amended version of this draft to vote between July 14 and 16 after convening another consultation session.

Earlier, on Monday, June 5, opposing the securitization of what is the most ambitious development project in this region, Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen wrote a letter to the UNSC, rejecting “the unwelcome meddling by the League of Arab States on the matter of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).”

By escalating to the UNSC this dispute, to resolve which negotiations are already being led by the African Union (AU), the Arab League states have put at risk the friendly and cooperative relations it has had with the AU, the letter added.

A day ahead of the UNSC meeting, he also met the ambassadors from the other Nile riparian states. ENA reported that in this meeting, Mekonnen noted that this move sets a “dangerous precedent” by taking “the negotiation process away from the African Union, standing contrary to the principle of solving African problems through African-led mechanisms”.

“Ethiopia has become an Africa power, which cannot be bullied inside the AU. However, Egypt has been much more of a global player, and has many allies outside the AU, including the US,” explained Emmanuel (name changed) a journalist based in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. Entering into the dispute as a mediator in 2019, the US soon took sides with Egypt, whose president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was called by former US president Donald Trump as “my favorite dictator.”

Why is GERD contentious?

The largest dam in Africa and tenth largest in world, GERD has a capacity to transform Ethiopia – over 60% of whose population is presently without access to electricity – into a surplus power generating country with considerable capacity to export electricity to neighboring countries in the region.

However, since the beginning of its construction in 2011, the GERD has provoked anxieties in Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 97% of its fresh water supply. 95% of the country’s population is settled along the river and its delta. About 86% of the annual flow into Egypt’s Aswan High Dam comes from the Blue Nile tributary over which Ethiopia is constructing the GERD.

Under the circumstances, Egypt has often described the dam as an “existential threat” and sworn to not hesitate to fight a war if necessary to protect its water supply.

Nevertheless, there are no technical or geographical factors that necessitates a zero-sum game between the two countries. The final report of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) in 2013 had pointed out that according to preliminary indications, water supply to Egypt will not be adversely affected by the dam “given average or wet years.” Ethiopia is filling specified amounts of water in the dam only during the rainy season.

Sudan, the immediate downstream country from whose border with Ethiopia the GERD is only 30 kilometers, has been wavering in its position. After initially raising objections, Sudan had come around to support the project, given the benefits it can potentially reap in terms of cheap electricity and the ability to mitigate monsoon flooding.

According to the IPoE report, the “project will increase the overall regulation capacity of the Eastern Nile Basin by about 60,000mM3, which will add resilience to impacts of climate extremes including droughts and floods… GERD can stabilize downstream water supply”.

However, antagonism between Sudan and Ethiopia escalated last year over a border dispute, arising from both sides laying claim to Al Fashaga. Further, the political alliance between Sudan and Egypt has developed into a military alliance.

The two countries jointly conducted military drills in May 2021, further escalating the hostilities with Ethiopia, which is already dealing with a civil war in the northernmost Tigray region, and increasing violence in many other parts of the country due to ethnic rivalries.

In this atmosphere, where fissures dividing Ethiopia internally are accentuated, the GERD is the one unifying project, in which Ethiopians across the ethno-political divide are invested.

Emmanuel told Peoples Dispatch that the cost of constructing the dam “was paid by ordinary people. Bonds sold by the government to raise funds were bought by working people surviving on meager wages. Even students are invested. This puts the government under serious pressure.”

Given that the construction of the dam had started well before Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister in 2018, he cannot afford to miss out on a scheduled filling of the dam, the political cost of which would be domestically prohibitive.