Egypt Calls for Stronger Security Council Action on Nile Dam

A dispute involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over a Nile dam moved Thursday to the United Nations Security Council, as the two Arab countries sought to secure international support and pressure Addis Ababa to resolve an issue that’s stoking regional security concerns.

Before the council meeting, Tunisia circulated a draft resolution calling for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to get involved in the talks among the three countries. The draft offered the kind of diplomatic push Egypt and Sudan -- which have both opposed Ethiopia’s filling of the dam -- wanted to see, but Security Council members including France and the U.S. called on the parties to resolve their differences through the African Union.

“We understand that the Nile waters and how these waters are used are important to all three of these countries. And we believe this is an issue that can be reconciled,” said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “Egypt and Sudan’s concerns over water security and the safety and operation of the dam can be reconciled with Ethiopia’s development needs.”

“We believe that the African Union is the most appropriate venue to address this dispute, and the United States is committed to providing political and technical support to facilitate a successful outcome,” she added.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has been lobbying Security Council members this week, after news that that Ethiopia had begun the second stage of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was condemned by Cairo and Khartoum as a dangerous escalation that violated existing agreements.

“Egypt is facing an existential threat,” Shoukry said during the Security Council meeting. “Ethiopia’s unrelenting unilateralism, the continued failure of negotiations” forced Egypt to bring the issue to the council to prevent an escalation in the region, he added, noting the Security Council needs to take a stronger line against Ethiopia.

Egypt and Sudan, which rely on the Nile for most of their fresh water, have maintained that Ethiopia lacks the political will to conclude a binding agreement. They cite its recent rejection of mediation efforts, including a Egyptian-Sudanese proposal to involve the UN, the U.S. and the European Union.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, while stressing he wants a peaceful resolution, has declared his country’s water a “red line.”

While Egypt found “backing within the previous U.S. administration to pressure Ethiopia, the current administration has not been inclined to weigh in similarly partisan fashion,” said Jonas Horner, deputy director for Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Ethiopia argues the project, which includes a 6,000-megawatt power plant, is crucial to its long-term development and has downplayed concerns about how the project will affect the other two countries.

The Tunisian draft called for an agreement on filling and operating the dam 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,” according to a copy seen by Bloomberg.

It calls on the three countries to “refrain from making any statements, or taking any action that may jeopardize the negotiation process, and urges Ethiopia to refrain from continuing to unilaterally fill the GERD reservoir.”

Sudan’s foreign minister, Mariam Sadiq al-Mahdi, said in a statement posted on the ministry’s Facebook page that the intention of bringing the issue to the Security Council was to “strengthen the African negotiation track” and to ensure that the three countries sign a binding deal within a specific time frame.

While the three governments have repeated the requisite diplomatic niceties about seeking a peaceful solution, there’s also been some saber rattling.

El-Sisi has warned that all options “are on the table,” comments echoed this week by Shoukry. Egypt and Sudan held several military drills -- the latest in May was called “Guardians of the Nile.”

The rhetoric is more likely aimed at encouraging international action rather than a belief Ethiopia can be intimidated, Horner said. Ethiopia’s government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has been embroiled in a drawn-out conflict in the country’s Tigray region.

“Cairo and Khartoum have limited leverage to press Ethiopia on the GERD,” Horner said. “Direct military intervention remains unlikely for now and would isolate Egypt internationally.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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