29 June 2020

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Agreement within Reach, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council, as Trilateral Talks Proceed to Settle Remaining Differences

An agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is within reach, with the United Nations standing ready to support talks and the African Union-led process to settle remaining differences, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs told the Security Council in a 29 June videoconference meeting*.

“These differences can be overcome,” said Rosemary A. DiCarlo, briefing the Council on the latest developments, “and an agreement can be reached should all the parties show the necessary political will to compromise in line with the spirit of cooperation highlighted in the 2015 Declaration of Principles.”  Recalling that the Blue Nile contributes 85 per cent of the main Nile volume when it merges with the White Nile in Khartoum, she said it is an important transboundary water resource, critical for the livelihoods and development of the people of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.  Construction of the dam, a major hydropower project located on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region, began in April 2011 and, when completed, will significantly boost that country’s energy sources, allowing it to increase electrification, accelerate industrialization and export excess electricity to the region.

Recognizing the need for cooperation to fully realize the dam’s benefits and mitigate potential negative effects on the downstream countries, she commended the three nations for such initiatives as establishing the International Panel of Experts in 2012 to examine design and construction plans, a follow-up Tripartite National Committee in 2014 and the 2015 Declaration of Principles.  Recalling their establishment in 2018 of the National Independent Research Study Group, she said the United States and the World Bank have assisted in trilateral discussions since 2019.  While a draft text was discussed, the three riparian States were unable to reach agreement in February 2020.

Since then, Sudan sought to narrow the differences, given that 90 per cent of the technical issues have already been settled, she said.  The three countries agreed to appoint observers to the talks — including South Africa, United States and the European Union — and on 26 June, the African Union convened the Bureau of the African Union Heads of State.  The three nations agreed to an African Union-led process aimed at resolving outstanding issues and will meet over the next two weeks to do so.

Commending the parties for their determination to negotiate an agreement and the African Union’s efforts to facilitate the process, she said the remaining differences are technical and legal in nature, including the binding nature of an accord, a dispute resolution mechanism and the management of water flow during droughts.  While the United Nations has not participated in negotiations, the Secretary-General is fully seized of this matter.  The United Nations stands ready to assist, through technical and expert support, as appropriate and as requested by the three countries, including any support that may be required by the African Union-led process.

Transboundary water cooperation is a key element in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, she said, emphasizing that climate change, combined with projected demographic growth and socioeconomic changes, will increase water management challenges worldwide, not only for Blue Nile riparian countries.  “Cooperation is not a zero-sum game; it is the key to a successful collective effort to reduce poverty and increase growth, thus delivering on the development potential of the region,” she said, expressing hope that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will persevere with efforts to achieve an agreement that is beneficial to all.

Council members shared their perspectives, with many extolling the multiple benefits of the project and recognizing commendable progress in negotiating technical issues.  Many delegates expressed strong support for recent African Union-led efforts.

South Africa’s representative, recalling that over the last few weeks, the Council has received letters from each of the three countries detailing their perspectives on the dam project, said it is clear that the Nile River is an extremely important resource for the African continent, specifically Ethiopia, as the origin of the Blue Nile, Sudan, where the confluence of the White and Blue Nile takes place, and Egypt, where the Nile flows into the Mediterranean Sea.  The river is not only a source of development, but survival, for all riparian States, and as a shared natural resource, it is essential that there be cooperation on its use.  The project, under construction for a decade, is expected to usher in a new era of development for Ethiopia and potentially the entire subregion, becoming Africa’s biggest hydro-electrical dam.  As such, it should be celebrated as a symbol of much-needed development and not become a source of conflict and disagreement.  The Council’s discussion today represents a clear recognition that the issue affects the continent.

Following the recent Bureau of the African Union Assembly meeting, convened by Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, he said a positive and constructive spirit clearly showed the willingness of all parties to find a mutually accepted agreement.  The parties recognized the project’s potential for the African Union, committed to a process facilitated by the Chairperson and pledged to refrain from making any statement or taking any action that may jeopardize or complicate the bloc-led process.  The Bureau of the African Union Assembly and participating Heads of State and Government have requested the United Nations Security Council to take note of these developments and the fact that the African Union is seized of the matter.  It is therefore important that the Security Council respects these continental efforts and provides space for the parties, through the agreed mechanisms, to find a solution that will ensure a peaceful, prosperous future for the three neighbouring countries.

The United States representative said that as a facilitator and observer of the negotiations on an agreement, her delegation understands the importance of the Nile River to the histories and futures of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.  Indeed, the dam poses a unique opportunity for this part of Africa, where precipitation, droughts, desertification and economic underdevelopment have befallen generations of people.  The agreement has the potential to transform a region of more than 250 million people, with such benefits as increased food security and improved energy access.  The considerable work by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in recent months shows it is possible to reach a balanced, equitable accord.  Taking note of recent African Union efforts, she said the United States recognizes that this issue is before the Council because the window to achieving such a pact may be rapidly closing.  Encouraging all countries to build on substantial progress to date, she called on them to refrain from making any statements or taking any actions that would undermine the good will needed to reach an agreement.  With constructive dialogue and cooperation, a solution is within reach, she said.

Niger’s representative said that as a landlocked nation and home to the third longest river in Africa, the Niger River, his country believes transboundary water management is essential for the peaceful co-existence of countries sharing an important natural resource.  States have set up the Niger Basin Authority, Lake Chad Basin Commission and the Mano River Union, as water must be a source of cooperation and shared prosperity and not a source of conflict or discord between riparian nations.  While escalating tensions over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are concerning, the project should have a happy outcome, as it involves three sister countries, united by history and geography.  A few days ago, the situation among the three countries was tense because of an impasse in negotiations.  Today’s Council discussion takes place in a different atmosphere, following the auspicious African Union initiative to convene a videoconference meeting with the Heads of State of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.  Recalling some outcomes, he said more than 90 per cent of the issues have already been resolved, and the three countries are determined to discuss the remaining differences within the framework of the African Union.  The tripartite negotiating mechanism will submit a report in the coming days to the current African Union Chairman, who can convene a meeting in early July to decide on the outcome of negotiations.

Niger welcomes the African Union’s appeal to the Council to take note that the bloc is seized of this issue, he said, adding that the Council could support this initiative, which would send a strong signal of recognition of the essential role played by regional organizations in peacefully settling disputes of this nature.  Indeed, regional organizations such as the African Union often have a better understanding of dynamics and can detect early warning signs of an impending conflict while promoting dialogue and reconciliation among parties, as highlighted in the Secretary-General’s report on strengthening partnerships between the United Nations and the bloc on issues of peace and security on the continent.  While the Council’s role is essential in the maintenance of international peace and security, under the principle of subsidiarity, the African initiative should truly be supported in this particular case in order to give full force to the principle of employing African solutions for African problems.

The Russian Federation’s delegate said the search for a mutually acceptable solution to the problem should be carried out in accordance with the spirit and letter of the 2015 Khartoum declaration, taking into account progress achieved on a range of issues, from filling the dam to project safety.  The recent African Union meeting produced a promising format of cooperation — a tripartite committee on technical and legal issues tasked with handling all outstanding problems of the dam’s operation.  Noting the contributions of African States to addressing the differences among the three nations, he said African colleagues have demonstrated their commitment to the “African solutions for African problems” principle.  Expressing hope that Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum will be in a position to achieve a mutually acceptable agreement in the interest of maintaining stability in the region, he said bridging differences hinges on negotiations that duly respect the interests of all sides and are in line with international law.  The Russian Federation is genuinely interested to see the issue resolved expeditiously, as it would contribute to the progress, development and prosperity of the African continent, which are aligned with the goals set out at the first ever “Russia-Africa” economic forum and summit held in Sochi in 2019.

Estonia’s representative said that the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam can only be amicably resolved through direct talks and understanding between the three countries concerned.  Urging them to stay the course, he encouraged them to continue negotiating in good faith, make the necessary concessions and reach a mutually beneficial tripartite accord.  Hopefully, an agreement can be achieved in the coming weeks, as envisioned by the African Union process.  He added that this is a historic opportunity for the parties to lead by example and to show the world how a source of conflict can be turned into cooperation.

Germany’s representative, agreeing with Estonia’s remarks on substance, noted that there is a lot of unity in the Council on the issue.  That sends a strong signal of support for the three stakeholders for an early conclusion to their negotiations and to reach an early and amicable solution that balances their respective interests.  He added that Germany is committed to continuing its technical support to the process.

The Dominican Republic’s delegate said it is encouraging to hear that the three parties have decided to continue an African Union-led negotiation process.  Their decision to refrain from making statements or taking any action that may threaten or complicate further that process shows their level of compromise and good faith towards an amicable agreement.  “Resolving outstanding key issues like water sharing, drought mitigation and dispute resolution mechanism would set an excellent regional and international precedent for future disputes on these issues.”  He recommended that the parties consider each other’s legitimate concerns and interests, to avoid mutual mistrust in order to produce the necessary compromises and reach a timely agreement.

China’s representative said that African countries have a good tradition of solving regional issues through dialogue and consultation.  Hopefully, the three parties will reach a solution acceptable to all through patient dialogue and consultation.  The international community, for its part, should create a conducive external environment and support the three parties in narrowing their differences, thus helping to maintain peace, stability and development in Africa.  He stressed that the Council’s involvement on this issue should not set a precedent.

Viet Nam’s delegate expressed concern that many international watercourses are increasingly being utilized in unsustainable ways that may not ensure the rights and legitimate interests of riparian countries, especially those downstream.  The adverse effects of this tendency, compounded by the impact of climate change, are challenging security, stability and development in many regions, including in Africa where millions depend on shared rivers.  He called on the three parties to keep building upon achieved results and fully implement the 2015 Agreement on Declaration of Principles on the dam project.  Outstanding issues must be resolved peacefully, in a friendly spirit and good faith, in accordance with international law and the 2015 Agreement.  Welcoming the African Union’s role, he warned against unilateral measures that might undermine prospects for a negotiated solution.  The utilization of international watercourses must be in line with international law and commitments of concerned countries.  The interests of riparian States, especially downstream ones, must be harmonized to ensure the sustainable use and equitable share of water resources.   He went on to stress the importance of codification and development of international law regarding the use of transboundary watercourses, including by implementing the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

The United Kingdom’s representative placed strong emphasis on consensus between parties on developments that impact a shared natural resource.  The progress and commitment of the three parties demonstrates the spirit of cooperation across the Nile.  However, reaching agreement will require compromises by all sides.  It is important that all parties keep sight of key principles agreed as part of the Declaration of Principles, he said, adding that it is in that spirit that talks should continue and conclude.  The United Kingdom is confident that working together, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have the strength and resolve to reach an accord, to the benefit of all.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan all have very credible concerns, but their collective identity, crafted through the existential links of the Nile, gives confidence that they are more inclined to work together.  She urged the three parties to take bold political steps to conclude negotiations.  “On issues as complex and as consequential as this, final settlements can only be achieved through a shared journey in which each party builds a reciprocal and recognizable sense of understanding,” she said, adding that it is the collective wisdom of Africa that will facilitate a lasting solution.

Indonesia’s delegate said that today’s Council meeting should not create a precedent.  Rather, it should be seen as part of a collective effort to help all parties reach an amicable, acceptable, and implementable solution.  Talks must continue in a spirit of good-neighbourliness with the intention of finding a win-win solution.  He also appealed to all parties to refrain from any unilateral action that would hamper the negotiations and further exacerbate already fragile situations.  “We must be continuously aware that in exercising rights, we are also bound by responsibilities, including to our neighbours,” he said, emphasizing that the lives and livelihoods of millions of people are at stake.

The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in his national capacity, saying that every effort must be made to avoid an escalation of tensions.  Last week’s discussions under the aegis of the President of South Africa must continue in a constructive spirit.  “A mutually beneficial agreement would make it possible to turn this dam into an opportunity for development and prosperity for all the peoples of the region, rather than a factor of tension and division,” he said, calling on all parties to respect international law and related conventions, as well as the Declaration of Principles adopted by the three parties in 2015.  He also encouraged the Secretary-General to offer his good offices in support of a negotiated solution.

Sameh Shoukry, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Egypt, said that much like the way the world is working together to address the global COVID-19 pandemic, the issue at hand requires the same spirit of cooperation while recognizing that no nation is an island unto itself, but part of a community bound by a common destiny.  While recognizing the importance of the project to Ethiopia’s developmental objectives, he said the mega-dam, which is Africa’s largest hydropower facility, potentially threatens the welfare, well-being, and existence of millions of Egyptian and Sudanese citizens.  Indeed, 100 million Egyptians alone depend on the waterway for their livelihoods.  The unilateral filling and operation of this dam, without an agreement that includes precautions to protect downstream communities, would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilize the already troubled region.

Egypt brought the matter to the Council’s attention to forestall further escalation, he said, and to ensure that unilateral actions do not undermine efforts to reach an agreement or prejudice the rights and interests of downstream States.  Living in the most arid of the Nile Basin riparian States and in one of the world’s most water-impoverished nations, Egyptians are compelled to inhabit no more than 7 per cent of the country’s territory along a slender strip of a green and fertile delta, whose annual share of water is 560 cubic metres, well below the global threshold of water scarcity.  Meanwhile, Ethiopia enjoys an average annual rainfall of 936 billion cubic metres, of which 5 per cent flows into the Blue Nile and 11 other river basins, some shared with neighbouring States and all providing opportunities for regional economic cooperation and integration.

Egypt has shown strong support to Ethiopia and other nations’ efforts to realize greater prosperity, including through various Nile Basin projects, he said.  Even though Cairo initiated and engaged in painstaking negotiations on the dam to reach a fair and just agreement, those efforts “came to naught”, he said.  Indeed, throughout negotiations, Egypt faced an unjustifiable campaign of unfounded claims that Cairo sought to bind parties to agreements from the “dark era of colonialism”, he said, emphasizing that every Nile-related treaty Ethiopia has concluded was signed by its Government and as an independent State, including one involving the Emperor of Abyssinia in 1902 prohibiting construction of any waterworks across the Blue Nile that would affect the river’s natural flow.

Even with recent efforts involving the United States and the World Bank, he said, Ethiopia failed to approve a fair agreement in 2020, and subsequent talks were also unsuccessful.  While Egypt believes a legally binding agreement must include a dispute resolution mechanism and clear definitions establishing the threshold of significant harm that must be prevented, it was argued that mere guidelines of uncertain legal value, which could be unilaterally adjusted, should suffice.  It was also suggested that any such document would not include a firm obligation to prevent the infliction of significant harm on downstream riparian States.  Recalling the recent African Union meeting on this matter, he said parties agreed that intergovernmental technical negotiations will be held with a view to reaching an agreement within two weeks, and Ethiopia committed to refrain from taking unilateral measures beforehand.  This commitment can only be interpreted as ensuring that filling the dam is executed in accordance with agreed rules involving the three riparian States.  Any other interpretation would reflect a lack of political will to reach an accord and would enforce the unilateral will of an upstream State on its co-riparians, turning any talks into an exercise in futility, he said.

It is now incumbent on the Security Council to take note of and welcome the outcomes of the African Union meeting and to call on the three countries to comply with their commitments and pledges, he said.  Calling on the Council to encourage the parties to negotiate in good faith and refrain from any unilateral action until it is reached, he presented a draft resolution consistent with the outcomes of the African Union meeting that intended to express the international community’s keen interest in reaching an agreement and its appreciation of the dangers of unilateral acts.  Egypt stands ready to exert every effort to reach an agreement, he said, calling on friends and colleagues in Ethiopia and Sudan to summon the spirit of brotherhood and kinship between their countries and peoples.  “Let us embrace the undeniable truth of our commonality and camaraderie,” he said.  “Let us grasp the opportunity that is before us to shape our fate, rewrite history and chart a new course of peace and prosperity for our peoples.”

Ethiopia’s delegate said the issue does not have a legitimate place in the Security Council.  Today’s debate will set a bad precedent and “open a Pandora’s box”, as the Council should not be a forum for settling scores, he said, regretting to note that the issue has been politicized.  The three countries have reached consensus on most issues, with progress at hand and a mutually beneficial agreement within reach.  Even if the parties fail to resolve differences, a dispute settlement mechanism outlined in the 2015 Declaration of Principles has yet to be exhausted.  The African Union can also help.  However, while the Council often discusses the principles of complementarity between the United Nations and regional organizations, he said these concepts were ignored today.  Bringing the dam issue to the Council’s attention contravenes Article 33 of the United Nations Charter, stipulating that parties to any dispute shall first resort to regional agencies or arrangements, he said, highlighting that the recent African Union meeting saw parties agreeing to an African Union-led process in the spirit of pan-African solidarity and within the framework of African solutions to African problems.  As such, the Council should allow that process to run its course.

Turning to the importance of the Nile, he said the dam was conceived as a centerpiece of national development aspirations.  However, while Ethiopia generates 86 per cent of the total average annual flow of the Nile waters, it has never benefited from the river.  Past arrangements, including the 1959 Egypt-Sudan Nile treaty and Egypt’s unilateral move to build the Toshka and Peace canals in 1997, left Ethiopia with nothing, and parties had failed to hear Addis Ababa’s concerns.  Still, Egypt accuses Ethiopia of taking unilateral action, when Addis Ababa is only seeking to correct past injustices and equitably share this precious resource.  For Ethiopia, accessing and utilizing its water resources is not a matter of choice, but an existential necessity.

Today, tens of millions of Ethiopians still use firewood as a primary fuel source, taking a toll on health and the environment, and rural households, where 85 per cent of citizens live, have no access to electricity, whereas nearly the entire Egyptian population can access power grids.  Once completed, the dam will generate 15,700 gigawatt hours annually, bringing electricity to more than 65 million people.  A development project meant to uplift people, and as such averting a potential security threat rather than posing one, the dam is one of the mega-projects envisioned under Ethiopia’s efforts to meet the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

Despite Ethiopia’s efforts to create understanding with both Egypt and Sudan since the project’s beginnings, he said such initiatives as the International Panel of Experts failed to deliver results because of Egyptian intransigence and its insistence on “historic rights and current use”.  Egypt has been scuttling the tripartite negotiations because of its own internal domestic situation.  While Sudan knows full well the dam’s benefits, Ethiopia understands the political transition challenges it grapples with.  “We are all the people of the Nile, therefore, Ethiopia cannot harm Egypt without harming itself,” he said, adding that Addis Ababa’s good faith efforts have been unprecedented in the history of transboundary rivers, demonstrating exemplary cooperation and pointing out that neither Egypt nor Sudan consulted Ethiopia when they built dams on the Nile River.  Regarding negotiations involving the United States, Ethiopia engaged in good faith, but Egypt’s actions “muddied the waters” by leveraging and instrumentalizing the process with unacceptable terms.

Meanwhile, he said, Addis Ababa has agreed to fill the dam reservoir over a four- to seven-year period and to postpone the second phase if the annual inflow is below 31 billion cubic metres.  The three countries have already agreed on the initial filling of the dam, he said, noting that during the first stage of impoundment, which is a trial phase, Ethiopia will retain only about one tenth of the average annual flow of the Blue Nile.  By contrast, every year, twice the amount of the water retained during the initial filling of the dam is lost to evaporation from the High Aswan Dam in addition to wastage through water intensive, flood irrigation practices in Egypt.  “Water is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity,” he declared, adding that more than 60 per cent of Ethiopia’s surface area is dry land with no sustaining water resources, while Egypt is endowed with plenty of groundwater resources and has access to sea water, which could be desalinated for use.  In any transboundary watercourse, drought management is the joint responsibility of all riparian countries, but it is not acceptable that Egypt wants Ethiopia to shoulder the burden of drought alone.  The three countries must agree on drought thresholds and cooperative mechanisms for sharing the responsibility of addressing and mitigating any drought and climate change consequences.

The Council’s involvement risks hardening positions and making compromise even more difficult, he said, suggesting that members defer the matter to the African Union and encourage the three countries to return to negotiations.  He also expressed hope that the Council would be cautious not to amplify differences and undermine the African Union-led process.  The Council should heed Ethiopia’s call not to politicize and internationalize the issue.  Indeed, members will hopefully choose to be on the right side of history, he said, noting that in many ways, the matter is deeply rooted in a colonial legacy.  The Nile Basin countries enjoy one of the oldest relationships in human history, he said, emphasizing that the dam project offers a unique opportunity for transboundary cooperation between sisterly countries and should never be an object of competition or mistrust.  In this spirit, Ethiopia will pursue an amicable solution through win-win negotiations, while also seeking the understanding of Egypt and Sudan, he said, adding that:  “We are confident that we will reach a cooperative agreement in the coming weeks under the African Union-led process.”

Also participating were representatives of Tunisia, Belgium and Sudan.


* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.