The United Nations Security Council tackled a bitter regional dispute on Thursday over a massive dam built by Ethiopia on the main tributary of the Nile River.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is the source of an almost decade-long diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and downstream nations Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia says the project is essential to its development, but the governments in Cairo and Khartoum fear it could restrict their citizens’ water access.
Thursday’s open session comes after Egypt and Sudan turned to the 15-member body as Ethiopia began this week the second stage of filling GERD. The government in Addis Ababa insists the African Union (AU) should resume handling the talks.
On Tuesday, the UN called on the three countries to recommit to talks on the project’s operation and urged them to avoid any unilateral action.
“Solutions to this need to be guided by example … by solutions that have been found for others who share waterways, who share rivers, and that is based on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilisation and the obligation not to cause significant harm,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters in New York.
Egypt and Sudan have been pushing Ethiopia to sign a binding deal over the filling and operation of the dam – situated on the Blue Nile and set to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project when completed – while Ethiopia insists on guidelines.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government, however, has said it will move ahead with reservoir-filling in the absence of a deal.
“Ethiopia does not intend to harm other countries. Our intention is to work with other countries and improve our status,” Abiy told parliament earlier this week, stressing his country was determined to finish and use GERD.
On Monday, Egypt said Ethiopia had begun the second phase of filling the reservoir, a process expected to capture 13.5 billion cubic metres of water. Egypt expressed its “firm rejection of this unilateral measure”. Ethiopia argues that adding water to the reservoir, especially during the heavy rainfalls of July and August, is a natural part of the construction.
The Arab League announced last month it was backing Security Council intervention, despite Ethiopia’s insistence that talks proceed under an ongoing process led by the AU.
Before Thursday’s session, Tunisia circulated a draft resolution calling on Ethiopia to cease filling the GERD’s reservoir and pushing for a binding agreement between the three sides on the operation of the dam within six months.
However, a senior Ethiopian diplomat in New York told the Reuters news agency that the resolution would “effectively scuttle” the AU-led mediation process between the three countries, and Ethiopia was working to make sure that it would not be adopted.
The Security Council heard from ministers from the three countries, as well as its member states. It was also briefed by the UN special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, UN environment chief, Inger Andersen, and a diplomat from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which holds the AU presidency.
Sameh Shoukry, foreign minister of Egypt, which relies on the Nile for almost all of its water needs, said urged the council to require Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to negotiate a binding agreement on the issue.
Shoukry described “the existential threat” to the people of both countries from the dam.
‘Life and death’
Sudan, another downstream country, has expressed concern about the dam’s safety and the effect on its own dams and water stations.
Yasir Abbas, Sudan’s minister of irrigation, said Ethiopia’s dam is likely to affect the operations of his country’s Roseires Dam.
He said: “Without a legally binding information-sharing agreement on the filling and operation of the Renaissance Dam, we can’t operate Roseires dam. Sudan supports Ethiopia’s building of the dam, but with an agreement that it won’t affect the Roseires dam and its operations.”
Ethiopia says the multibillion-dollar dam is essential for making sure the majority of its people get electricity. Many Ethiopians have contributed millions of dollars to the project by buying government bonds.
“For Ethiopia, it’s life and death because without enough electricity this country cannot progress at all,” Moges Alemu, of Universal Power, told Al Jazeera.
“So being such important commodity for us, we are contributing willingly from our pocket.”