Amb. David Shinn: I doubt that the United States will take sides on the Nile water issue
Amb. David Shinn is an Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs. His diverse career in the foreign service of the United States has included ambassadorships to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.
Shinn is a frequent commentator in the news media on East African Affairs particularly on Sino-African relations, Piracy in Somalia, and so on. Please read his interview with the Egyptian private daily newspaper, Youm 7
Question: Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi recently visited Ethiopia. How do you interpret the visit?
Shinn: President Mursi seems to have had a good visit to Ethiopia on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity/African Union. He also conducted some bilateral business, especially concerning the Nile water issue. Following a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Mursi said both countries agreed that their Nile water interests would be addressed by a tripartite committee that includes representatives from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The focus will be on Ethiopia’s huge new dam known as the Renaissance Dam now being constructed on the Blue Nile River, the principal tributary of the Nile River. President Mursi, who also visited Addis Ababa in July 2012, met with numerous other senior Ethiopian officials during his visit.
Question: Ethiopia is planning to build the Renaissance Dam. Will it affect Egypt’s share of the water in the Nile River?
Shinn: The Renaissance Dam is for hydropower, not for irrigation. It will be filled gradually; the Ethiopian Minister for Water and Energy, Alemayehu Tegenu, estimates it will take five to six years to fill the reservoir behind the dam. This will be done over a long period of time in order to minimize the annual reduction of water reaching Sudan and Egypt while it is being filled. Once the reservoir is full, the impact on Sudan and Egypt should be minimal. Because its purpose is hydropower, water will continue to flow through the dam. There will be some evaporation from the reservoir, but because of the higher altitude and cooler temperatures prevailing at the location of the dam, the effect will be less than if the dam had been built in Sudan or Egypt.
Question: Is it possible that the new dam might spur a war over water in the region?
Shinn: While in this part of the world anything is possible, it is highly unlikely. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a major war anywhere exclusively over water. I don’t expect this to happen in the case of construction of the Renaissance Dam in spite of occasional excessively flamboyant rhetoric from all parties. I believe former President Anwar Sadat was the first to suggest the possibility of war with Ethiopia over use of Nile water. But several Ethiopian officials have also made unnecessarily strident remarks on the subject.
Most recently, Egyptian opposition figure Hamdeen Sabbahi and Sheikh Abdel-Akher Hammad of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya stoked these fires. Hamdeen said Egypt could close the Suez Canal to countries such as China and Italy, which are helping Ethiopia with construction of the dam. Sheikh Abdel-Akher Hammad upon learning that Ethiopia had begun to divert slightly the Nile during the construction process, said “we are ready to fight and we will embark on it with all our strength to defend our honor.”
These kinds of uninformed comment are not helpful. Fortunately, senior Egyptian government officials have been more reasoned in their public remarks. Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Bahaa Eddin recently commented that Cairo is not opposed to the construction of the dam so long as it does not impair Egypt’s interests. He added that the dam is a regional project designed to benefit Sudan and Egypt, in addition to Ethiopia. Egypt’s Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs, Ali Hifni, said that the recent diversion of the Nile was not something to worry about although he did express concern over construction of the dam.
Question: If Egypt and Sudan were to sign the Entebbe Agreement [Cooperative Framework Agreement – CFA] would it make any difference in the current impasse?
Shinn: Nile River riparian states Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi have signed the Entebbe Agreement, which says that projects could be built on Nile tributaries so long as they do not significantly affect the water flow. South Sudan has indicated that it intends to sign the agreement. Downstream states Sudan and Egypt have not signed the agreement.
At one point, Egypt called the Entebbe Agreement a national security threat. Egypt argues it will not accept any less than 51 billion square meters of water (about three quarters of the total Nile flow) annually that was agreed to in a treaty signed by Sudan and Egypt in 1959. Most of the remaining water (18 billion square meters annually) was reserved for Sudan. The volume of water reaching the Aswan Dam varies enormously from year to year. Ethiopia did not sign the 1959 agreement, which provided no water allocation for Ethiopia. The other riparian states were under colonial control at that time.
Acceptance of the Entebbe Agreement by Egypt and Sudan would be welcomed by the other riparian states and could help reduce tension among the riparians. There is no indication, however, that Egypt or Sudan has any intention to accept the Entebbe Agreement as written.
Question: Do you think that the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in power can affect the relationship with Ethiopia or the possibility of spurring war in the region?
Shinn: So long as the Muslim Brotherhood continues to pursue a generally pragmatic approach to its interaction with other countries in the region, I don’t believe it will increase the possibility of conflict. If it decides to pursue an ideological policy, including the exportation to other countries of fundamentalist Islamic principles, then I foresee greater conflict.
Question: Did the Egyptian government pay the required attention or exert the appropriate efforts regarding the Nile Basin issues and is there a political solution to the problem?
Shinn: Recent Egyptian governments have always had the Nile water question at the top of the foreign policy priority list. During periods of government change, there is inevitably a need to refocus attention on internal security and related issues and this probably occurred in the early days of the Mursi administration. But I don’t believe the Mursi government ever lost sight of the importance of the Nile water issue. A political solution is the ONLY solution to the problem. This issue will not and cannot be resolved militarily. Science can make a positive contribution by introducing more effective measures for the use of Nile water resources.
Question: What are the possible solutions to the impasse over use of Nile water?
Shinn: The easiest solutions are the technical ones, i.e. those projects that protect Nile Basin watershed, more efficient use of Nile water in existing irrigation projects, the avoidance of massive new projects that inefficiently use large quantities of water, especially for irrigation. Eventually, however, there must be a political agreement involving all of the riparian states that permits an equitable sharing of Nile water while acknowledging that Egypt is about 95 percent dependent on the Nile for all of its fresh water.
Question: What is the real role of Israel, United States and China in Africa concerning the Nile issue?
Shinn: None of these countries has a direct role in the Nile water issue. All of them can advise the riparian states to avoid conflict over Nile water and work towards a political solution. All of them can financially support the Nile Basin Initiative and make available to riparian states their technical expertise on water management. Israel, for example, has developed a highly efficient system of drip irrigation that uses less water.
Question: What is the role that the United States can play in the problem?
Shinn: Other than the suggestions that I made above, I don’t see much of a role for the United States. I believe Washington is reluctant to engage politically in the issue. It has close relations with both Egypt and Ethiopia and does not want to be seen taking sides. If it looks like the Nile water issue will result in conflict, then the United States would become more involved.
Question: Why did Ethiopia decide to build the Renaissance Dam without taking into consideration the position of Egypt and Sudan? What is the position of the Islamic movements in Egypt and Sudan on the issue?
Shinn: I am sure Ethiopia did take into account the positions of Egypt and Sudan, although I do not know if there were consultations with both governments before the decision was made to build the dam. Ethiopia has legitimate development requirements and a serious shortage of hydropower.
As for the Islamic movements in Sudan and Egypt, I don’t believe their positions are notably different on this issue than previous governments. In the case of Sudan, the Islamic government has been in power since 1989.
Question: Do you think that other countries are taking the side of Ethiopia and in the event the situation escalates to conflict, will the United States support Ethiopia?
Shinn: I don’t think other countries are taking sides. Most just want to see the most efficient and equitable use of Nile water. Again, this will require an understanding by all the riparian countries, not just Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
As I noted earlier, I don’t believe the Nile water issue will result in serious conflict. If I am wrong, I doubt that the United States will take sides on the issue.
Question: Can soft power organizations, especially the church, help in introducing solutions for the impasse?
Shinn: First, I don’t believe the issue has reached the impasse point. Discussions are still ongoing even as work goes forward on the dam. This is one of many, albeit the biggest, dams on Nile tributaries. It is not as though this is a new issue. If the Renaissance Dam supported a huge new irrigation project in Ethiopia where the water would never reach Egypt, then Cairo would have real reason for concern. But it doesn’t do that; it is for hydropower. Once the reservoir fills, the water flows as before.
Second, there is a role for soft power organizations such as churches and mosques and that is to provide facts about Nile water projects so that people are better informed. Soft power groups can also urge their governments to make more efficient use of existing water resources. I don’t see much of a role for soft power organizations to impact the political discussions.