Egypt has told the United Nations it faces an existential threat from a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile that Ethiopia plans to start filling in the coming weeks.
At a virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry warned of conflict if the UN fails to intervene.
He urged the council to adopt a resolution that would give international clout to efforts to resolve the dispute over Ethiopia’s dam, the filling of which he said endangers the lives of 150 million Egyptians and Sudanese.
Shoukry said the draft resolution is in line with the outcome of an African Union (AU) summit on Friday where the leaders of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia agreed to return to talks aimed at reaching an agreement over the filling of the $4.6bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known by its initials GERD.
“This draft resolution is not intended to pre-empt or forestall any negotiations, but to express at the highest levels the deep interests of the international community in reaching an agreement on the GERD and its appreciation of the dangers of acts of unilateralism in this matter,” he said.
Shoukry said the proposed resolution encourages the three countries to reach an agreement within two weeks and not take any unilateral measures in relation to the dam, and it “emphasises the important role of the UN secretary-general in this regard”.
Hours after the AU agreement was announced, the Ethiopian prime minister’s office said in a statement that the filling of the dam was set to begin within the next two weeks and that construction would continue.
Ethiopia’s UN ambassador said on Monday the UN was not the place to discuss the dispute.
“Let me be clear in that Ethiopia doesn’t believe the issue being discussed today has a legitimate place in the Security Council. It is bound to set a bad precedent and opens a Pandora’s box. This council should not be a forum for exerting diplomatic pressure,” said Taye Atskeselassie Amde.
He argued that Ethiopia has been deprived of its right to use the Blue Nile’s waters, saying more than 60 percent of the country is dry land with no sustaining water resources, while Egypt is endowed with groundwater and has access to seawater that could be desalinated.
Once completed, Amde said, the dam will bring electricity “to more than 65 million people who currently live in complete darkness”.
Both Egypt and Sudan appealed to the Security Council to intervene in the years-long dispute, which has seen bellicose rhetoric and escalating tensions.
The 15 Security Council members all expressed support for the AU action in reviving talks, but took no immediate action.
Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90 percent of its water supply and already faces high water stress, fears a devastating impact on its booming population of 100 million.
Sudan, which also depends on the Nile for water, has played a key role in bringing the two sides together after the collapse of US-mediated talks in February.
Filling the dam without an agreement could bring the standoff to a critical juncture. Both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to open conflict.
One analyst, however, believes it is unlikely any of the countries involved will resort to force.
“Ultimately, especially in the long run, the only way for Egypt to secure those [water] supplies is via cooperation with its upstream neighbours, very much including Ethiopia,” said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“If this escalated into any form of conflict, it’s going to make it much, much more difficult for the parties to overcome the remaining obstacles to reaching an agreement on the GERD, and it really could set back relations in the long term,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sudan’s UN Ambassador Omer Mohamed Siddig called for the Security Council to take note of the AU’s effort.
He said Khartoum calls on leaders of the three countries “to demonstrate their political will and commitment by resolving the few remaining issues on the agreement”.
“We strongly believe that the African-led process can push forward the three parties’ efforts to reach a comprehensive, fair and balanced agreement,” Siddig said.
Sticking points in the talks have been how much water Ethiopia will release downstream from the dam if a multi-year drought occurs, and how Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will resolve any future disagreements.
Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at Chatham House, said Cairo’s concerns were legitimate.
“What we have in Egypt is a significant gap between the amount of water they produce and the amount they consume. And with a rapidly growing population of over 100 million, it points to this problem only getting worse,” he said.