Do water wars loom in Africa?

When water affairs ministers from countries along the Nile met recently to discuss the fate of the river, Boutros Boutros Ghali was not in the room with them. But the lingering memory of his comment that future wars would be fought over water probably was.

The former United Nations secretary general first made the remark in the 1980s.

The notion of potential “water wars” has also been explored in a book of the same title and in numerous reports.

In addition, the phrase crops up repeatedly in articles that deal with water scarcity in Africa, and the possibility of conflict among communities desperate to ensure access to water.

In addition to the Nile basin, various sources have identified other transboundary river systems in Africa that are subject to increasing demands from growing populations, agriculture and industry.

These include the Niger River basin in West Africa (which comprises nine countries), and the Okavango system, shared by Botswana and Namibia.

According to the Amherst-based Global Water Policy Project in the United States, about 36% of Africa’s population currently lacks access to safe drinking water.

The United Nations Development Programme has also estimated that by 2025, about one in two Africans will be living in countries that are confronted with water stress or water scarcity. (The term water stress describes a situation in which each person in a country has access to less than 1 500 cubic metres of water every year.
In cases of water scarcity, this amount is reduced to 1 000 cubic metres.)

Has the continent awakened to the fact that water scarcity presents a challenge that should be tackled with far more vigour than was previously the case?

The ongoing talks about a more equitable sharing of the Nile’s waters provide some cause for hope, even if they have been peppered with angry demands and threats of retaliation. At present, use of the water is governed by a 1929 agreement (revised 30 years later) that gives Egypt and Sudan the right to determine whether and how other states along the Nile and its tributaries should use this resource.

Although the accord is a reflection of outdated colonial realities, attempts to revise it have been resisted by Egypt, which is utterly dependent on the river.

However, during a meeting of the Nile Basin Initiative held in Kenya March 15 to 19, Egypt’s minister for water resources and irrigation, Mahmoud Abu-Zeid, adopted a softer stance.

“Whatever decisions that are spelt out in the framework, Egypt will accept,” he said.

This framework is the outline of a new water-sharing agreement being crafted by the initiative, an organisation set up in 1999 by the 10 countries within the Nile Basin in a bid to use the river’s water sustainably.

According to the UN Department of Information, 160-million people live in the basin. It remained to be seen whether Abu-Zeid’s words reflect a genuine change of heart, or whether they are simply aimed at calming tempers while Egypt ponders new strategies to keep as firm a hold on the Nile as possible.

Nonetheless, water specialist Anthony Turton believes the minister’s new approach constitutes a “breakthrough of astronomical proportions”.

A founding member of the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters, Turton also works at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, an institute partially funded by the state that is based in Pretoria.

In an interview, Turton said he was convinced that intergovernmental structures to resolve disputes in the use of transfrontier rivers can deliver the goods even in the face of overwhelming odds.

He pointed, for example, to the Tripartite Permanent Technical Commission established by South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland in 1983. This group met to discuss use of the Nkomati/Maputo river even as tensions between the three states heated up because of South African involvement in Mozambique’s civil war, and Pretoria’s apartheid policies.

“[It was] a very difficult thing to get off the ground [and] it’s still got a few problems “it’s not a bed of roses”.

“But we now have, in the post Cold War and post-apartheid era, all the foundations for very significant intergovernmental cooperation in place,” he said.

“There is not one international river basin in southern Africa that does not either already have a commission functioning, or a commission that’s being developed.”

He was even upbeat about the situation in the Okavango. Discussions about the system have centred on plans to construct a pipe to divert water from the Okavango River to the Namibian capital, Windhoek, to promote development and give that country greater water security.

The proposal has generated intense debate, not least amongst conservationists who fear the move might drain water from the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s great wilderness areas.

Turton said that the pattern of water flow through the Okavango is well understood: the river experiences two infusions of water or “flood pulses” every year that are of key importance for maintaining the ecology of the delta.

Engineers know, he added, that water cannot be taken from the river before these pulses have been allowed to progress through the length of the water course.

“The Okavango is misquoted as being a river in conflict.

“There’s a river basin commission that is functioning extremely well,” he noted.

“But for the uninformed person, they tend to misinterpret the posturing of the different commissioners who make certain statements, without understanding the underlying dynamics. There is a high level of cooperation in that river basin.”

On the topic of the Nile Basin Initiative, Turton said he believed it might be beneficial to shift the focus from water sharing to “benefit sharing”.

This amounts to stripping the basin of its political baggage, and simply considering what the most optimal use of the Nile would be.

In practice, it might even involve governments allowing “their” share of the waters to be used by neighbouring states for the greater regional good.

Ethiopia, with its mountainous terrain, would apparently provide a perfect location for the construction of a series of small dams for electricity generation and modest irrigation projects. This electricity could be used to build an industrial base within a country that currently is one of the world’s poorest.

According to the UN, about 80% of Ethiopians live below the poverty line of a dollar a day. However, the project would probably involve Ethiopia retainingwater that Egyptian officials might argue was theirs, even if the sluice gates of these dams could be opened to release water to Egypt in times of need.

The question that begs asking is whether Cairo, with its long history of acrimonious relations with Addis Ababa, would contemplate a move that might increase its vulnerability, even while it improved the fortunes of Ethiopia, and perhaps even the region through making it appealing to investors.

Last month, states that make up the Niger Basin Initiative met in France to discuss the future of their particular water system.

At present, the Niger basin supports 10-million people. Summit leader Mamadou Tandja told delegates to the meeting that by 2020, this figure would have increased to 200 million even as the system was feeling the effects of decreased rainfall.

Heads of state in attendance issued a “Paris Declaration” at the end of the two-day talks.

Amongst other things, this document commits the basin’s nine member countries to consult each other about any “infrastructural work” which was done along the river that might alter its flow.

Above and beyond working out equitable arrangements for apportioning water resources, many countries still have to come up with strategies to ensure that their allotments were wisely used.

A number of countries might ultimately find it more “water efficient” to import food, and use their water to develop the industrial base that will enable them to do so. Then there was the matter of pollution.

“Look at Lake Victoria, for example,” said Rosemary Rop of Maji na Ufanisi (Water and Development), a non-governmental organisation in Kenya.

“It has become the toilet for East Africa. People are doing all sorts of things in the lake, including urinating [and] passing stools.” - Sapa-IPS

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