A Water War Simmers in the Horn of Africa

Jonathan Gornall

AFP photo: Timothy A Clary

With the disturbing clarity of scientific analysis, in 2018 researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre applied “innovative analysis of past episodes of conflict and cooperation over transboundary water resources” to identify “current and future areas where water issues are more likely to arise, and where cooperation over water should be actively pursued to avoid possible tensions.” Nowhere in the subsequently published paper – “An innovative approach to the assessment of hydro-political risk: A spatially explicit, data driven indicator of hydro-political issues” – was the emotive phrase “water wars” actually used. It is, after all, a term more at home in news headlines than in serious academic publications. But the first great water war of the 21st century is precisely the “risk” in question, and in the Horn of Africa that risk is on the cusp of becoming a tragic reality.

To the surprise of no one with even half an eye on developments in the region, at the very top of the list of potential global flashpoints identified by the researchers was the Nile basin.

Now, as Addis Ababa dismisses the protests of Sudan and Egypt and presses ahead with filling the reservoir behind its mighty Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which in the process will hold back a significant portion of the water that would normally flow downstream along the Blue Nile, it is difficult to see how the standoff between the three players can be resolved peacefully.

On July 8, the UN Security Council urged the three countries “to arrive at a cooperative solution, in pursuit of sustainable development for all in the spirit of ‘one river, one people, one vision.’” That is a vain hope. Despite the well-meaning intervention of organizations from the African Union to the Arab League, to say nothing of recent diplomatic interventions by Gulf states and the new US administration, a cooperative solution is precisely what the three countries have consistently failed to achieve for the past 10 years, ever since Ethiopia first announced its plan to build the vast hydroelectric dam.

No one can argue reasonably that Ethiopia, a country in which half the population has no access to electricity, shouldn’t be allowed to exploit the natural resource that originates on its territory. Likewise, who can suggest that Egypt should be deprived of even a drop of the water upon which it has depended for its existence for millennia?

The competing needs appear incompatible. But this is only the beginning of the intractable water crisis that is brewing in the Nile basin. There are no fewer than 11 nations and 260 million people – some 58 percent of the total – utterly dependent upon the waters of the Nile. Over the next 25 years, predicts the UN, the populations of those 11 nations will increase by at least 50 percent. The average volume of water that flows along the Nile, meanwhile, will not increase by a single drop.

Worse, several of the nations of the Nile Basin, inspired by Ethiopia’s success in building Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, understandably want dams of their own as their populations grow and demand for modernization and electricity soars. Last month, South Sudan announced plans for a dam that would straddle the White Nile, also upstream of Sudan and Egypt, threatening to deprive the downstream states of yet more water. Ethiopia itself also has plans for at least three more dams.

In its 10-year strategy, published in 2017 in an ill-fated bid to ensure “cooperation and joint action between the riparian countries, seeking win-win gains,” the Nile Basin Initiative predicted that “if countries develop as planned, we will need 1.5 Niles by 2050.” That now seems like an underestimate and, in any case, it’s a purely academic one – there are no more Niles available. The NBI’s slogan – “One river, one people, one vision” – rings ever hollow.

Those urging Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to talk their way to a resolution of the crisis, to somehow find a way to manage the Nile as an international, transboundary resource, rather than as an asset to be exploited by individual nations determined to operate in their own self-interest, must face a sobering reality. Even in an imaginary ideal world, in which all the 11 nations of the Nile Basin were a single state, managing the great rivers as a unified resource, there could still be no solution to the fundamental problem that now threatens to overwhelm the security of the Horn of Africa and, as a result, the wider region.

There are simply too many people, with more arriving every day, and not enough water to go around.

Worst-case scenarios can be found in little-read academic papers authored by Egyptian academics. For Egypt, any significant loss of water from the Nile would mean devastation of its agricultural economy and joblessness on a vast scale, attended by famine, civil unrest and a refugee crisis that would see millions flee the country, with consequences for neighboring states and a revival of the horrors of the Mediterranean exodus that reached its peak in 2016 with over 5,000 deaths.

All this, of course, comes against a backdrop of multiple tensions in the region, from the ongoing political crisis in Somalia to the bitter conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. In April, Jeffrey Feltman, the newly appointed US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, predicted that, with over 110 million people, “if the tensions in Ethiopia result in a widespread civil conflict that goes beyond Tigray, Syria will look like child’s play by comparison.”

To that scenario, just add water and you have the recipe for a regional disaster on an unprecedented scale.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.