Conflict over water in cross-border river basins – the need for peaceful cooperation


Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

Mighty River Jordan matters more than any other river – for three religions, for the people living alongside it, for thousands of years of history and as both a joint resource and a dividing line for countries in today's rather difficult political environment. But the respect given to it does not reflect this importance. There is overuse and pollution all along the river, and once it reaches the Dead Sea, massive overuse of its water upstream has reduced it to a rivulet of sewage. The little water left is unable to maintain the level of the Dead Sea; in past years it was falling at a rate of 1.33 meters per year.

But now there is now some hope for better cooperation. In December 2013 the governments of Israel, Palestine and Jordan announced a joint water project with a desalination plant at the Red Sea, from which the potable water will be shared by Israel and Jordan. Some 100 million cubic meters worth of salty brines will be pipelined to the Dead Sea, to compensate at least for some of the massive overuse of the water of river Jordan. Part of the agreement also foresees some more fresh water for the Palestinians.

This rather positive development reminds me of the first discussion on water at the World Economic Forum in Davos that I had organised in 2005. 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."

So let me take a broader look at this issue, beyond this sign of hope from the Middle East, to a river with comparable spiritual, emotional, societal and political importance, namely the Nile.

Recently the rivalries between Egypt and Ethiopia on its water have drawn worldwide attention.

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. But 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.

Now, the upstream countries are increasingly looking into the potential of the Nile as a source of water and power supply, in order to develop their domestic economy including agricultural activities. Ethiopia announced its Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam project in 2011. The project is located 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. 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’).

Similar to the Middle East, these countries might look for common cross-border water strategies and management schemes to avoid further conflict. One aspect might be adopting tools such as the water cost curve strategy proposed by 2030 Water Resource Group to improve efficiency in local water use.

Among the many aspects to be considered are irrigation efficiencies. Let me illustrate this with FAO data on irrigation water requirement and agricultural water withdrawal between 1993 and 2007 for the countries in the basin. Agricultural water withdrawal accounts for 93.6% of total water withdrawal. 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%.

Another 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).

A consensus, involving technical, economic, and political measures, could be the way out of the current situation that threatens peace and development in this region. Those who have a stake, rather than those who have a political agenda, should come together to form such a consensus. But these may well be theoretical concepts; no doubt, the issue requires further discussion; I would welcome any thoughts and comments.

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