Kenya backs AU role in resolving Nile dam dispute

Friday July 09 2021
Nile dam.

The Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. PHOTO | AFP


Kenya on Thursday called on the African Union to continue leading discussions on the Nile dam operations in Ethiopia, even as Egypt warned that Ethiopia’s mega hydro power project was “an existential threat.”

At a session of the UN Security Council, Kenya warned against “inflammatory remarks” but said the UN must allow the continental bloc to continue seeking for a long-term solution.

“Kenya recognises the critical importance of the principle of subsidiarity in this matter and recommends it to the Security Council,” Dr Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, told the Council’s session.

He was referring to a practice in diplomacy where regional blocs take leading roles in resolving issues within their jurisdictions, with supplementary effort from the UN and other outside parties.

“We call on the parties to recommit to negotiating in good faith within the AU-led process in a spirit fired by our shared dream of building a more united and prosperous Africa by 2063.

“Kenya has every confidence that our Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese brothers will make the principle of ‘African solutions for African challenges’ a reality.”


'Not a security threat'

Kenya, a non-permanent member of the Council, spoke during an open in-person debate on “Peace and Security in Africa.”

Dr Kimani told the Security Council that the UN should back the African Union to ensure Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, who are squabbling over the use of the Nile, reach an amicable solution.

It was a subtle rejection of the UN Security Council’s role to place on its agenda the issue of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Ethiopia has erected on the Blue Nile.

Normally, the Council discusses issues that are a threat to global peace and security, and Kenya argued that the dam’s controversy had not yet reached that level.

Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and nine other countries in the Nile Basin have “legitimate rights” on the use of the Nile, Dr Kimani said, and their differences and desires to secure waters for their people are not yet a threat to international peace and security “because the legal principles underlying the initiative are protective of all its members.”

Dr Kimani referred to the Nile Basin Initiative where riparian countries had been discussing equitable usage of the Nile, the world’s longest river.

The session, the second over GERD since 2020, was called by Africa’s other member of the Council, Tunisia, as Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia had each written to the Council after Addis Ababa launched the second filling of the GERD reservoir.

Filling the dam

Egypt, which spoke as an interested party, said the Council should reprimand Ethiopia as the waters of the Nile determine Egypt’s existence as a country.

Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, said his country may be left with no choice but to defend its people’s “inherent right to life” whose survival, he argued, depends on the Nile.

Ethiopia opposed the session, with its representatives telling the Council that it has no mandate to discuss the GERD which has been the agenda of the AU since last year in April.

“Ethiopia believes it is unfitting of the UN Council resources to discuss the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam,” said Dr Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s Water, Irrigation and Energy minister.

“Their objection is not directed as such to the construction of the GERD, but rather to oppose Ethiopia’s utilisation of the Nile.”

Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have failed to agree on how to fill the dam.


In April, an AU-led session chaired by President Felix Tshisekedi ended without any concrete deal.

Tunisia’s draft resolution had called on the three countries to pursue a negotiated solution and to reach a binding agreement within six months. It had rejected any unilateral decisions, including filling the dam without an agreement, and suggested observers take a more active role for the AU-led process.

Egypt though argued that the AU process has not been successful and accused Ethiopia of not consulting downstream members before refilling the dam.

The dam had become an “existential threat to the livelihood” of millions of Egyptians, Shoukry told the Council.

“The singular cause of the stalemate has been Ethiopia’s intransigency…it demonstrates that the source of this crisis is political. Ethiopia has chosen to ignore the realities of geography,” he said.

Ethiopia rejects calls to seek permission to fill the dam, arguing it is an internal resource on which it has total sovereignty. Although 85 percent of the Nile waters originates in Ethiopia, the country has not harnessed the resource, it argues.

Now officials say the $5 billion GERD, built with local fundraising, will help produce enough electricity for Ethiopia’s 110 million people, while controlling irregular flooding downstream.

Safety measures

But Sudanese officials say Ethiopia has still not provided safety measures for its second filling, exposing its own smaller dams to possible disasters.

Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the Sudanese Foreign Minister, told the Council on Thursday that there would be a “direct danger” on Sudanese people if safety measures are not agreed on.

Addis Ababa, she said, had given Sudan a short notice last time, which caused panic when the gates of the Nile were reopened after the filling.

In its earlier letter to the Council, Khartoum demanded “cross-border environmental and social management plans to mitigate harm” and warned that filling the dam without an agreement would present a risk to regional security and stability.

Omar El-Faroug Sayed Kamel, the official spokesman for the negotiating team for the GERD in Khartoum, told reporters this week that Sudan had just been notified of the second filling.

“Sudan reiterates its rejection of the unilateral filling of the Renaissance Dam for the second year in a row without an agreement, which is an explicit violation of international law and principles, agreements and stable practice regulating the exchange of benefits for common rivers,” Kamel said.
Sudan considered Ethiopia’s notification useless unless negotiations and agreement on filling and operating the dam are negotiated.

“Sudan reaffirms that the unilateral filling of the second year without an agreement represents an imminent danger and threat to Sudan,” the statement said.
Sudan had asked the UN Security Council to hold a session on GERD “in addition to urging all parties not to take unilateral measures, including the second filling by Ethiopia, and to accept the principle of mediation to resolve the outstanding issues…”

The session came as Ethiopia, now in the middle of a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, began filling the GERD.

Various dignitaries supported dialogue for a solution and France, which chaired the meeting, said an agreement was needed sooner to avoid tensions following nearly a decade of talks.

The dignitaries included UN security Council’s Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Horn of Africa, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga; the Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (Unep), Inger Andersen; and a representative of the Permanent Mission of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the UN, as the chairperson of the AU. Others are Ireland, Vietnam, India and the UK.