Conflict Over Water In Cross Border River Basins

Via The Water Challenges blog, some thoughts on conflict over water in cross border river basins:

Countries of the Nile BasinCountries of the Nile Basin

In January 2005, I organised the first discussion on water at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Avishay Braverman, a leading Israeli politician, and then President of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, was one of the invited panelists. He spoke about the battle over water – some were even seeing the risks of war over water – in the Middle East and elsewhere. But he made it very clear: “Water is not the reason for war; it is only an excuse for war.” Another quote from Malidoma Somé, an initiated Elder into the Dagara Tribe of West Central Africa and holder of a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Sorbonne: “The Dagara tribe of West Central Africa successfully categorize their people into five different categories: fire, water, mineral, earth and nature. The “water” people are usually considered the peacemakers. They are the ones with the ability to reconcile differences, both differences within the self and differences with one another.”

Recently the rivalries between Egypt and Ethiopia have drawn worldwide attention. The two nations’ dispute over the construction of the Ethiopian giant dam is escalating.

Ethiopia announced its Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam project in 2011. The project is located in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, about 40km east of the border with Sudan. When completed, it will be one of the largest dams in Africa, with a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters, and since it was announced the project has caused a battle between Egypt and Ethiopia over water resources.

Ethiopian officials claim that the project is “win-win”, whereas Egyptians disagree, and some Egyptian politicians were even reported as saying that “it might be better to bomb the dam or to arm Ethiopian guerrillas to pressure the government in Addis Ababa” (Financial Times article, ‘Water: Battle of the Nile’).

The Nile, as one of the longest rivers in the world, passes through 11 countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt. Two main tributaries, the White Nile and the Blue Nile, meet at Khartoum and flow northwards through the Sahara desert. Between 80-90%of the Nile’s flow comes from the Blue Nile and the other rivers (such as Atbara) which originate in the Ethiopian Highlands, while the White Nile contributes 10-20 % of the annual Nile discharge (State of the Nile Basin 2012).

In the northern part of the Nile basin, where Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan lie, there is virtually no rainfall in the summer. In contrast, the southern portion, which encompasses the Ethiopian Highlands, has heavy rains during the summer months. Evaporation is averagely high in the basin, but also varies from country to country. In the desert area, evaporation is low, as there is little available water despite higher temperatures. In contrast, the Ethiopian Highlands experience lower temperatures. Therefore, less rainfall is evaporated and more appears as run off. This link, to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, highlights the natural water balance across each country around the Nile Basin. (See Table 1.)

Up to now, most of the water withdrawal from the Nile River has been used for irrigation in Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan, while upstream countries such as Ethiopia were barely using Nile waters. The latter are increasingly looking into the potential of Nile as a source of water and power supply, in order to develop their domestic economy including agricultural activities.

Fighting for water resources in the shared river basin is not something new. As a typical example, the uneven distribution of water resources in the Nile Basin, due to geological, historical, economic and political reasons, has caused tension between downstream countries (Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan) and those sitting upstream. In recent decades, rivalry between nations and threat for political security in the basin has escalated, with increasing water resource scarcity under the pressure of fast growing populations, economic development, and climate change.

A consensus among all involved stakeholders is key to settling the issue in the long term, and it should be based on a holistic understanding of the challenges and with a focus on sustainable development across the whole basin. This has technical, economic and political aspects. One is the loss of water from the river due to evaporation: for instance, less than half of the water entering the Sudd region, a vast swamp in South Sudan, flows out of it into the White Nile. The rest disappears through evaporation and evapotranspiration. More water is lost between Sudd and Assuan, and then, in particular, in Lake Assuan. Research therefore suggests that from a water economy view it would be better to withdraw water for irrigation upstream than downstream before large parts of it are lost through evaporation (Whittington et al., 2004). Goods with the water embedded in food grown further upstream could then be traded to supply downstream consumers (see my previous post on virtual water trade).

Another aspect to be considered is irrigation efficiencies. Let me illustrate this with FAO data on irrigation water requirement and agricultural water withdrawal between 1993 and 2007 in the countries in the basin. The country with the highest irrigation efficiency among these 11 countries is Egypt, at 76.5%, following by Uganda at 52.2%. The irrigation efficiency in the rest of the countries is only around 20%. Agricultural water withdrawal accounts for 93.6% of total water withdrawal. That makes 3.7 billion cubic meters of water loss from irrigation every year in the nation, accounting for 6% of the capacity of the reservoir under construction. Given the large percentage that agricultural water withdrawal represents of total water withdrawal – 73.4% on average in all of these countries – we know that a total of nearly 42 billion cubic meters of water withdrawn for irrigation every year from the river basin is lost.

Just by looking at this data, it is clear that establishing effective common cross-border water strategies and management schemes, and adopting tools such as the water cost curve strategy proposed by 2030 Water Resource Group to improve the efficiency in local water use (especially irrigation), are essential for relieving water shortage stress in the Basin and ultimately, avoid conflict.

A consensus, involving technical, economic, and political measures, will be the way out of the current situation that threatens peace and development in this region.

No doubt, the issue requires further discussion; I would welcome any thoughts and comments.

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