Updated: Nov 3, 2022
The longest river in Africa is one of the most important water resources for the eleven countries that it flows through. The river Nile has been historically significant for the continent and has heritage associated with its name. It is a known fact that historically important things are more often than not the centre of attraction for political disagreements, the Nile has been no different. The river has been subject to disputes in relation to the distribution of its waters amongst the countries that it flows through. During the 18th and 19th century when colonisation had engulfed the continent, the British were dominant in the Water politics of Nile. Over the years, Egypt emerged as one of the most politically dominant countries from the region and had a superior position in terms of the Nile water sharing.
The 1959 agreement between Sudan and the then United Arab Republic is a clear expression of the dominance the Egyptians wielded in the politics of Africa. The share for the United Arab Republic stood at 48 Milliards of cubic meters while the Sudanese had to settle for 4 Milliards of cubic meters as measured at Aswan. The distribution grants more than 90% of the total available water to the Egyptians (Nile Waters Agreement, 1959). The agreement is not only prejudiced towards the Sudanese but has also conveniently disregarded the other countries having a stake in the Nile water-sharing discussions.
The tensions regarding the Nile water sharing have heightened in the past few weeks owing to the disagreement regarding Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. The project was made public in March 2011 and has been a subject of controversy ever since. Ethiopia has faced unequivocal opposition from Egypt for the dam. The Egyptian government has expressed concerns regarding possible reduction in their water supplies due to the dam and demanded guaranteed access to water supplies in case of drought while Ethiopia is filling the dam. Ethiopia has refused to be locked down into a long term agreement and instead prefer year-by-year discussion while considering the prevailing environmental conditions. Ethiopia has also condemned the unfair agreements related to water sharing due to the lack of participation from stakeholders other than the two downriver states (Press Release – United Nations Security Council, 2020).
The United Nations Security Council simulated an open VTC on the issue and discussed the state of negotiations between the three parties. The African Union announced on 26th June of this year that the leaders from the three parties had agreed to an AU-led mediation process. The parties have recognised the issue as an “African Issue” and prefer resolving it at the regional level. The meeting held by the Security Council was brokered by the United States by convincing South Africa to vote in favour of a meeting. The announcement seems to be a step in the right direction and good for the Security Council since the issue anyways does not seem to warrant a discussion in the Security Council.
The United Nations Security Council has been tasked to discuss matters which tend to warrant an immediate response from the international community and issues which qualify as a “threat to international peace and security”. The international community has devised the mechanism for the council in detail at the San Francisco conference back in 1945. Chapter VI and Chapter VII of the charter provide the dispute resolution mechanism to be followed by the United Nations. Article 33 of the Charter suggests that the parties to the dispute should attempt to resolve the disputes through negotiations, dialogue and other diplomatic means. It is only after such measures have failed, that the Security Council takes cognizance of the matter by declaring a particular issue to be a “threat to international peace and security”. Article 34 lays down the provision which calls for the Security Council to investigate the matter. However, the primary focus of the entire process is firstly on the measures as provided under Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. The parties to the dispute here have engaged in successful dialogue over the years in relation to the dispute regarding the dam. The parties were successful in adopting the Declaration of Principles on the GERD back in 2015 and settled for discussion regarding technical matters in future (Report on the working of UNSC, 2020). The parties have further committed to the AU-led mediation process, which is evidence of the intentions of the parties involved here. History also suggests that the parties are capable of resolving the differences through negotiations considering the past successful agreements on the water sharing concerns.
All the parties remain committed to dialogue and thus the question about Intervention of the United Nations Security Council is redundant at this point of time. However, it is crucial to understand that the United Nations cannot turn a blind eye to the matter and it is important for the Security Council to remain seized of the matter. The dialogue may have been successful in the past; however, the probability of success this time is less than before. The previous efforts to negotiate for water sharing resulted in prejudiced agreements and complete disregard for the upstream states. The strategy of Egypt to dominate the politics of Africa and effectively control the river is no longer acceptable to states like Ethiopia.
A very important factor for the dominance of Egypt has been the political turmoil in most of the upstream countries including Ethiopia. The Ethiopians have not been able to pivot their attention towards the infrastructural development and maximum utilisation of their resources owing to the security concerns that have plagued them. The concerns related to the security are a result of the long-standing dispute with Eritrea and rising domestic insurgency. Egypt has capitalised on this and dominated the water politics for many years. The political dynamic of Ethiopia has been remodelled in the past two years. After more than two decades of hostilities, stability in relations is on the cards for both Ethiopia and Eritrea. The joint declaration of peace and friendship signed in 2018 by both the neighbouring states signifies a revamped state of affairs between the two countries. In the aftermath of this development, the Ethiopian government has been able to redo their governance methods and focus on the infrastructural development of the country. These political developments have made it difficult for Egypt to continue their dominance of water politics like yesteryears. Thus, the negotiations may not result in the manner they have in the past years considering the Ethiopians would not allow the upstream states to be disregarded and one could rather expect them to negotiate on fresh terms which may be favourable to them.
Nevertheless, dialogue and negotiations at the regional level represent the best possible option for dispute resolution in this case. It also seems to be the right time to engage all the countries in the Nile basin for dialogue as part of the Nile Basin Initiative and strive for a consensual, long-lasting and durable solution to the problem of water sharing.