In Hindsight: The GERD and Water Security
On 15 September, the Security Council adopted a presidential statement on the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The presidential statement, the Council’s first outcome on this matter, calls for a resumption of the African Union (AU)-led negotiations to reach a “binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD” (S/PRST/2021/18). It was adopted after more than 14 months of sporadic AU-led negotiations and Security Council engagement on this issue.
Council practice in recent years has shown a growing concern about water security issues. At one level, the Council’s discussion of the GERD could be viewed as an evolution of this practice. But while other Council discussions on water security have been at the thematic level or broad in focus, this case pitted the direct interests of influential member states against one another in a strategically important region. The roles of the AU and the League of Arab States (LAS) also shaped the way the Council addressed this issue, as did concerns that the Council could be drawn into other transboundary water disputes across the globe.
The ongoing dispute dates back to 2011, when Ethiopia started building the GERD on the Blue Nile. While Ethiopia argues that the hydropower dam, with an expected capacity of 6,000 megawatts, is vital for its development, downriver countries Egypt and Sudan have said that the GERD will threaten their own water supply and called on Ethiopia not to fill the dam without reaching a prior binding agreement. They have also accused Ethiopia of intransigence in the AU-led negotiations (which started on 26 June 2020), expressed concerns about the dispute’s implications for regional peace and security, and sought the Security Council’s intervention. Ethiopia has maintained that the AU-led tripartite negotiation process is the appropriate forum for resolving the dispute and accused the two downstream countries of a lack of good faith in the negotiations. Ethiopia has further argued that Egypt and Sudan are pushing for recognition of their water rights based on an unfair colonial-era treaty, a view that those countries contest.
On 23 March 2015, the three countries signed a Declaration of Principles on the GERD in Khartoum. This declaration was built around ten principles, which included prioritising cooperation, agreeing not to cause significant harm, peaceful settlement of disputes, and equitable and reasonable utilisation, among other things. While that was seen as a positive step—and many issues have been agreed upon in the negotiation process since then, including technical matters related to the dam’s operation—several areas of significant disagreement remain unresolved. These include whether to establish a dispute resolution mechanism, how to manage water flow in case of drought, and even whether to call the negotiated document “an agreement” or merely “guidelines and rules”.
The Council and Water Security
Although the Council has not previously engaged in a bitter transboundary water dispute like the one taking place over the GERD, it has discussed transboundary water issues for several years. Since late 2008, Council members have met twice a year to consider the work of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), a political mission established in 2008 by then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help Central Asian governments address international terrorism, drug trafficking, organised crime, and environmental degradation (S/2007/279). One of UNRCCA’s tasks is to foster dialogue among states in the region on transboundary water management issues, a point highlighted in several press statements issued by Council members. Most recently (January 2018), Council members encouraged Central Asian states to “play a full and active role” in managing transboundary waters and “to engage constructively in consultations to reach agreement on how to meet energy and water resource challenges across the region” (SC/13179).
In November 2016, under the Senegalese presidency, the Council held its first open debate on water, peace and security to highlight the growing threat of water insecurity, including in relation to transboundary waterways. Senegal had tested this idea among members in April 2016 through an Arria-formula meeting on water, peace and security that was chaired by the country’s president, Macky Sall. Only months later, as a signature event of its June 2017 Council presidency, Bolivia organised a high-level briefing, chaired by its then-president, Evo Morales, on “preventive diplomacy and transboundary waters”.
A number of themes emerged in these meetings. Several members maintained that management of transboundary waters should not be viewed primarily as a source of tension, but as an opportunity for inter-state cooperation. Some member states further recognised that addressing water disputes at an early stage could be viewed in the context of the Council’s conflict prevention work, as the title of the June 2017 meeting suggests. Tensions were also evident, however, over whether the Council is the appropriate forum for addressing water security issues. Among member states not in favour of such Council engagement, Russia said in the November 2016 meeting that water-related matters are primarily sustainable development issues that the Council does not have the expertise to address, and in the June 2017 meeting that transboundary water issues should be dealt with in “specialized organizations”, including at the regional level, rather than through the Security Council.
The GERD and the Council
The Council held its first public meeting on the GERD on 29 June 2020, following an escalation in tensions during the previous weeks over Ethiopia announcing its intention to prepare for the first filling of the dam. The Council had discussed the GERD behind closed doors under “any other business” one week earlier, and it convened the public meeting under the broad rubric “Peace and security in Africa”. Both approaches avoided placing the GERD issue formally on the Council’s agenda. Between 1 May and 29 June 2020, each of the parties directly involved (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) sent two letters to the Council setting out their national positions. During the 29 June meeting, several Council members recognised the AU’s mediation efforts, with some members emphasising that the dispute should be resolved at the regional level. China and Indonesia underscored their view that the Council’s discussion of the matter should not set a precedent for Council engagement in other, similar types of dispute.
One year later, Addis Ababa’s intention to move forward with the second filling of the dam prompted Egypt and Sudan to request a meeting of the LAS. On 15 June 2021, following that meeting, the LAS adopted a resolution which called on the UN Security Council to discuss the dispute and on Ethiopia to refrain from the second filling of the dam without first having reached an agreement with the countries affected. In a statement the same day, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the LAS resolution “in its entirety”.
In line with the LAS resolution, Tunisia—a member of the UN Security Council, the LAS and the AU—requested the Security Council to meet on the GERD, which it did on 8 July. Tunisia has not contested the fact that the GERD negotiations should take place within the AU-led process, but pursued a Security Council product calling on Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume those negotiations with the goal of a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD.
In bringing this matter to the Council and seeking an outcome, Tunisia’s perspective differed from that of its partners in the “A3 plus one” grouping—Kenya, Niger and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines—and other members, who would have preferred that this dispute not be elevated to the Security Council. It seems that Egypt was actively engaged in bilateral diplomacy with Council members to promote the organ’s engagement on this issue.
During the 8 July 2021 Council meeting, many members emphasised that these types of disagreements are better solved regionally and through dialogue among the parties involved (S/PV.8816). Kenya called on the parties “to recommit to negotiating in good faith within the AU-led process” and expressed its “total confidence that our Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese brothers and sisters will make the principle of African solutions for African challenges a reality”, while Niger called on “all parties to prioritize reaching a regional and African solution to the GERD issue”. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that “the African Union is best-suited to facilitate the pacific settlement of disputes on the motherland”; along with Mexico, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines referred to Chapter VIII of the UN Charter (which encourages the peaceful resolution of local disputes by regional arrangements or agencies as long as their efforts are consistent with the principles and purposes of the UN). Viet Nam was especially direct, saying “it is high time that the AU accelerate its efforts in assisting the three countries to resolve the outstanding issues”.
Negotiations on the presidential statement were prolonged and arduous. Tunisia had initially proposed a resolution in July, but following Council members’ inability to agree on this product, it pursued a presidential statement, an outcome with less political clout than a resolution but one requiring consensus to be adopted. In the final product, the Council declared that its statement “does not set out any principles or precedent in any other transboundary water disputes”. This caveat was fueled by fear of overreach if the Council were to engage in transboundary water disputes across the globe, as there are some 260 transboundary lake and river basins and 300 transboundary aquifers, many without cooperative management frameworks. These concerns were particularly evident in India’s statement after the adoption of the presidential statement. As explained by its Deputy Permanent Representative Ravindra Raguttahalli, India—as “an upper, middle and lower riparian State, with several rivers entering and exiting [its] land”—has taken the view that “as a general rule, transboundary water issues do not belong to the domain of the Security Council”.
Early iterations of the Council text apparently requested the Secretary-General to report on the dispute to the Council within six months. This reference was removed in the final version of the text, as some Council members were concerned that it would lead to further Council involvement on the GERD.
It remains to be seen whether the Council maintains its pledge that the GERD presidential statement does not establish a precedent. While members may be reluctant to discuss transboundary water disputes, such issues are likely to persist and, given the effects of climate change, may grow more contentious.
 UN Water, Transboundary Waters <https://www.unwater.org/water-facts/transboundary-waters/> last accessed 27 September 2021.