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Why has the AU been silent on the Ethiopian dam dispute?

25 February, 2020
Meressa K. Dessu, Dawit Yohannes and Roba D. Sharamo , ISS Today

Egypt, Nile, river, boat, desert.jpg

A section of the Nile River in Egypt
A section of the Nile River in Egypt | © Grafik_zfk/Pixabay.com

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are currently engaged in vital talks over the dispute relating to the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River. While non-African actors are increasingly present in the negotiations, the African Union (AU) is playing a marginal role.

In addition to supporting negotiations and the implementation of a possible agreement, there are critical lessons from the negotiations for the AU on how to manage future maritime and freshwater disputes. With the involvement of the United States (US) and World Bank, the parties have convened over eight rounds of negotiations in two months. Despite making some headway, a conclusive agreement is yet to be signed. Major disputes persist over the timeline of filling the reservoir, and mitigation measures to be taken in case of drought.

The Nile River is a trans-boundary resource shared by 11 African countries including Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. To date though, there is no approved framework on the water’s management and use. The countries almost reached an agreement after 10 years of negotiation in 2010. But Egypt and Sudan didn’t sign it mainly due to concerns of ‘water insecurity’ arising from a broader deal affecting their share of water for agriculture, industry and hydroelectric power generation.

Disputes persist over the timeline of filling the reservoir, and mitigation measures in case of drought

In 2011, Ethiopia unilaterally started construction of the dam over the Blue Nile, a major tributary to the Nile. In addition to country-level benefits, Ethiopia claims that the dam has wide significance for regional integration, particularly regarding affordable electricity supply.

 

While Sudan supports the dam’s construction, Egypt initially rejected it because it considers it an existential challenge. Egypt later accepted the project and the three countries signed a negotiated Declaration of Principles agreement in 2015 – the basis for the ongoing technical talks. After the tripartite agreement, expert-level negotiations on the safety, filling and operation of the dam were progressing among the countries. But the internal political crisis and ensuing regime changes in Ethiopia and Sudan in 2018 and 2019 respectively delayed the process.

The delays have led to a resurgence of concerns over regional instability. This was raised by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, leading to his call for international pressure on Ethiopia. A month later, Egypt declared the talks had reached a dead end and requested international intervention. Russia facilitated meetings between Egypt and Ethiopia’s leaders in Sochi on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit in October 2019. The leaders agreed to resume negotiations. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin offered his help, but the two countries settled on US and World Bank mediations.

Since November, five rounds of technical negotiations and over three rounds of ministerial-level meetings have been convened. Although high-level US and World Bank officials have attended as ‘observers’, their role is increasingly seen as providing alternative courses of action to the impasse. After the last round of negotiations, the US said the countries would sign the agreement by the end of February. It now seems more time is needed to finalise the deal.

With its multilateral nature, the AU could be a more neutral arbiter in the dispute

The AU has the primary responsibility to promote peace, security and stability in Africa – anchored in the principle of ‘African solutions to Africa’s problems’. However it hasn’t featured highly in the dam negotiations, with non-African actors instead becoming part of the solution. This is a missed opportunity considering that the AU’s multilateral nature and aspirations to lead on regional stability make it a more neutral arbiter. The AU’s silence on the issue, at least in public, was especially evident when tensions escalated between Egypt and Ethiopia. The two countries exchanged provocative statements including threats to use military measures to resolve the dispute. In response, the Arab Parliament expressed its concern and offered support to Egypt and Sudan.

Throughout all of this, the AU didn’t issue a single statement. In March 2019 the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) encouraged member states to find peaceful solutions, but the council has since failed to discuss the dispute. This may show a lack of determination by the AU and its member states to resolve disputes while invoking the rhetoric of ‘African solutions to Africa’s problems’. But the AU may have other reasons for its silence. According to Institute for Security Studies Senior Research Fellow Andrews Atta-Asamoah, the AU doesn’t have a history of pronouncing itself on sensitive issues. And politics on the PSC means that member states often refrain from placing difficult topics on the council’s agenda, says Atta-Asamoah. Any ‘wrong move’ affects the neutrality, acceptance and utility of the AU in the minds of some member states.

Perhaps the AU doesn’t have the appetite to resolve sensitive disputes between influential states

An African diplomat who wishes to remain anonymous suggested to ISS Today that the AU perhaps doesn’t have the appetite to engage in sensitive dispute resolution between two such influential member states. He also says the AU may lack the capacity to mediate such a complex, technical problem. But the AU does in fact have the means to support the resolution of such disputes. It could back the negotiation process from the beginning as well as the amicable enforcement of the agreement that emerges. Revisiting the process around these negotiations could help the AU resolve similar maritime and freshwater disputes in future.

The AU and AU Commission chairs could also use their positions to support the negotiations. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently asked South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa – the AU’s 2020 chair – to mediate its disputes with Egypt. This could be a step towards home-grown solutions. The AU should reflect on the extent and timeliness of its responses to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam negotiations to ensure it isn’t sidelined in future processes involving its member states. It may not always be the lead actor, but the AU’s presence is important to ensure African ownership and leadership in promoting continental peace and security.

 

Meressa K. Dessu, Senior Researcher and Training Coordinator, Dawit Yohannes, Senior Researcher and Roba D. Sharamo, Regional Director, ISS Addis Ababa

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is an African non-profit organisation with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal. Our work covers transnational crimes, migration, maritime security and development, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, crime prevention and criminal justice, and the analysis of conflict and governance.

[This article originally appeared on issafrica.org]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Source
ISS

Topic
Water

Region
Sub-Saharan Africa

Topics

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Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

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Private Sector

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Security

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Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

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Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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