Thursday, March 23, 2006

Nile Basin Initiative Reduces Tensions, Former U.S. Envoy Says

Ambassador Shinn recommends greater U.S. policy focus on NBI
By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer
Bureau of International Information Programs
U.S. Department of State
20 March 2006

Washington – An innovative development and dispute mechanism called the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is helping 10 African nations smooth out potential conflicts over water [riparian] rights from the Nile River, says former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn.

Shinn spoke at a March 16 Director’s Colloquium on "Water War in the Nile Basin" held at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The former U.S. envoy to Addis Ababa in the mid-1990s is now an adjunct professor at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington.

The Nile, at 6,670 kilometers long, is the world’s longest river. Its basin, which covers 3.37 million square kilometers, is a little larger than India. The 10 countries watered by the Nile are: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Eritrea. Their representatives met in 1999 and established the NBI with help from the World Bank.

The initiative is a good idea, Shinn told his audience, because "cooperative basin-wide development can provide the riparians greater net benefits than they would achieve through unilateral development projects.

"Most important, it will reduce the potential for conflict," he said.

Supporting the initiative also "offers a huge opportunity for the international community to engage in conflict prevention," Shinn said, and suggested "the U.S. should elevate Nile basin cooperation to a major foreign policy priority in the region.

"Legal rights to water in any river basin, including the Nile, are politically controversial, legally obscure, and emotionally volatile," Shinn reminded his audience.

POPULATION GROWTH PUTTING PRESSURE ON WATER RESOURCES

The 10 riparian nations account for 336 million of Africa's total population of 850 million, he said, adding that high population growth rates among the riparians -- predicted to double between 1995 and 2025 -- increasingly is putting an added strain on "finite" Nile water.

For example, Nile water is "a life or death issue for Egypt," Shinn said, where 95 percent of its population live in the Nile Valley and depend on the river for fresh water. The Nile is also crucial for Sudan, which depends on it for close to 77 percent of its fresh water.

Agriculture is the biggest water consumer; continentwide it accounts for 88 percent of usage. In addition, large numbers of livestock depend on water in the basin. Because that water must be shared by so many, Shinn said, the riparian countries have taken "important steps to minimize conflict" that some say looms on the horizon.

Chief among those efforts is NBI, which helps to defuse tensions by acting as a problem-solving mechanism for thorny development issues regarding water use and rights, the former diplomat said.

"Each NBI member has agreed to share information with other riparians on projects it intends to launch and, if possible, undertake joint studies to ensure the sustainable utilization of water," he explained.

An appropriate role for the United States, Shinn suggested, should be "to make cooperative solutions for the use of Nile water a routine part of its diplomatic dialogue with all riparian states.”

Shinn also recommended:

• Greater U.S. financial support for the NBI, the Nile Basin Trust Fund, and the International Consortium for Cooperation on the Nile (ICCON), established by the riparian nations in 2001 to liaise with international donors on development issues;

• Technical assistance by "appropriate U.S. institutions to develop regional climatic models, short and long-term hydrometeorological forecasting, and modeling of environmental conditions";

• Encouragement for the NBI to draw on U.S. technical expertise in areas such as remote sensing and "on the Geographic Information Service for the multitude of technical and environmental issues that face Nile basin riparians."

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