Arab League backs calls for UN intervention in dam dispute

Arab League backs calls for UN intervention in dam dispute
4 min read
16 June, 2021
In the latest attempt to reach an agreement on the long-disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Arab foreign ministers have called on the UN Security Council to intervene in talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Secretary-General of the Arab League, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, said Arab countries will press for the UN Security Council to hold an urgent session [Getty]

Arab foreign ministers on Tuesday backed calls for the United Nations Security Council to intervene in a lingering dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over a dam Addis Ababa is building on Nile River’s main tributary. 

The move, announced at a meeting in Qatar, was the latest push by Cairo and Khartoum to reach an agreement on the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the Arab countries will press for the Security Council to hold an urgent session on the decade-long dispute. 

Aboul Gheit spoke at a joint news conference with Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Doha, following the meeting of Arab ministers. 

The three nations were close to reaching a US-brokered accord last year, but Ethiopia walked out of a signing meeting in Washington, accusing former President Donald Trump’s administration of siding with Egypt. 

Cairo and Khartoum have repeatedly called for the US, the European Union and the UN to join the talks as mediators, along with the African Union. Addis Ababa has rejected the idea. 

The agreement would spell out how the dam is operated and filled, based on international law and norms governing cross-border rivers. 

The dam is now 80 percent complete and is expected to reach full generating capacity in 2023, making it Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and the world’s seventh-largest, according to reports in Ethiopia’s state media. 

The dispute now centres on how quickly Ethiopia should fill and replenish the reservoir and how much water it releases downstream in case of a multi-year drought. The latest round of negotiations brokered by the African Union in April failed to make progress. 

Tuesday’s development came amid diplomatic and political pressure by Egypt and Sudan on Ethiopia ahead its planned second phase of filling the dam. They argue that Ethiopia’s plan to add 13.5 billion cubic meters of water in 2021 to the dam’s reservoir is a threat to them. 

“There is a united Arab position,” said Al Thani, the Qatari foreign minister. “Water security is about survival for mankind, and for the peoples of Sudan and Egypt.” 

A final communique of the meeting called on the U.N. Security Council to take “necessary measures” to launch an “active negotiating process” aiming at reaching a deal within a specific timeframe. 

Egypt and Sudan said they had sent letters to the Security Council this month, explaining their positions on the dam. Both warned about dire repercussions to peace and stability of the Horn of Africa without a deal. 

They accused Ethiopia of failing to help reach a “fair, balanced and legally binding” agreement in previous talks overseen by the African Union. 

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement late Tuesday denouncing the Arab League communique. It said the 22-member bloc's approach “unhelpful and misguided” on the dispute. Addis Ababa has maintained that the dam will help pull millions of its nearly 110 million citizens out of poverty and make the country a major power exporter. 

"Ethiopia expresses its rejection of the decision of the Council of the Arab League regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam after its meeting in Doha," the statement read. 

"In fact, this is not the first time that the Arab League has issued a statement regarding its misleading positions on the Renaissance Dam, as a result of its support of the scandalous allegations of Egypt and Sudan regarding the dam," the statement added. 

"Ethiopia will remain committed to the Declaration of Principles, and remain fully engaged in the negotiations led by the African Union."

Doha’s hosting of the meeting marks a new beginning for the Egypt-Qatar ties and Qatar’s re-emergence on the regional diplomatic stage after years of relative isolation. Egypt, along with other Gulf countries, was party to a boycott of Qatar that was based largely on its ties to Turkey and Iran. 

A January declaration put an end to the diplomatic crisis that began in 2017 with a rift between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on one side and Qatar on the other. 

The four countries had jointly boycotted Qatar and hoped an embargo and media blitz would pressure it to end its close relations with Turkey and Iran. Egypt and the UAE have viewed the support by Qatar and Turkey of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood as a security threat. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were primarily concerned about Qatar’s ties with Iran. 

The countries accused Qatar of cosying up to Iran and financing extremist groups in the region, though Doha denied the charges. Qatar-based satellite news network Al Jazeera was at the centre of the dispute. The four nations demanded its closure, among other measures, which Qatar rejected. 

Al-Thani and Aboul Gheit also said ministers discussed the Israel-Palestinian conflict and discussed steps to stop what Al-Thani described as “Israeli violations” in Jerusalem. 

 Egypt and Qatar have played a significant role in the conflict between Israel and Gaza’s ruler Hamas, because they maintain diplomatic ties with the militant group.