Tensions Rise With the GERD Water

Tensions are once again rising among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, along with the water in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The annual rainy season is fast approaching. Ethiopia will almost certainly undertake a second filling of the 74 billion cubic metre capacity reservoir if there is no prior agreement otherwise among the three disputants.

A deal seems remote, as there are no signs of even an imminent resumption of negotiations. The last round of African Union-led negotiations ended in Kinshasa on 5 April, without any glimpse of an accord on how to manage the huge dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, upstream of Egypt and Sudan, to generate 6.45 gigawatts of hydro-electric power.

Last week Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry travelled to six African countries – South Africa, Tunisia, Kenya, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Comoros – to present Egypt’s case. Cairo is almost wholly dependent on the Nile for its fresh water and fears the GERD will significantly reduce its supply.

Egypt indicated before Shoukry’s tour that it might refer the dispute to the United Nations Security Council as it tried to do last July before South African President Cyril Ramaphosa intervened. As African Union (AU) chair at the time, he persuaded the parties to accept the AU as mediator. But Ramaphosa failed to clinch a deal in some six months of negotiations – and now his successor as AU chair, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi, has also failed.

The hints of Egypt’s intentions to try to go back to the Security Council included some sabre-rattling from President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who warned Ethiopia not to ‘touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open.’ Another clue was a letter Shoukry wrote to the Security Council, urging it to persuade Ethiopia not to take any action on the dam before reaching a legally binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan.

He warned that failure to reach consensus would harm Egypt and Sudan’s water interests and security, increase tensions throughout East Africa and the Horn, and ‘constitute a serious threat to international peace and security.’ It is precisely the mandate of the Security Council to address such threats, so Shoukry appeared to be setting the stage to seek council intervention.

Sudan’s irrigation minister Yasser Abbas also mentioned referring the dispute to the Security Council if Ethiopia started a second filling of the dam without agreement among the three countries.

However at their meeting last week, Shoukry didn’t lobby Ramaphosa to support a Security Council referral. Instead he said Egypt would ask Tshisekedi to convene a special meeting of the AU Bureau to plot a path forward. There are no signs that such a meeting is imminent, despite the second filling’s looming deadline. Presumably, though, Egypt could still use the AU Bureau meeting to raise a request for the Security Council intervention.

Maybe that would provide the catalyst to kickstart the stalled negotiations. Or perhaps the parties should consider a different configuration. There seems little point in including the US and EU in a formal mediation role, but it might make sense to bring in the UN as co-chair with the AU. That could address Egypt’s apparent suspicion that the AU favours Ethiopia – while also addressing Ethiopia’s anxieties by keeping an AU hand in the process.

It’s hard to say where the standoff might end if no agreement is reached. El-Sisi’s sabre-rattling has been echoed by some Egyptian military analysts. They also point to recent joint military exercises between Egypt and Sudan as a warning that the two countries could resort to force if Ethiopia proceeds with the second filling.

Clearly the dispute is souring relations among three important African countries, and there is a danger of a flashpoint. This suggests the GERD dispute is a legitimate subject for Security Council attention, and that this option may be needed if negotiations don’t succeed soon.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Read the original article on ISS.

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