Fortunately, no such major conflict has erupted in the years since, but with this week’s announcement by Ethiopia that it plans to build a controversial new dam along the Nile, the prospect of war over water grows ever stronger.
In the United States, we tend not to think of water as a resource we would fight over. Yet for many other countries the reality is very different. As a commodity that is becoming rapidly more scarce, and as global populations and the demand for water increase, it seems more and more likely that nations will some day go to war to protect this vital national interest. This is particularly true in cases where the source of fresh water is shared among a number of countries.
Although about 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 3 percent of the total supply is considered fresh, and therefore viable for human consumption and crop irrigation. Of this amount, most is thought to be locked up in glaciers and the polar ice caps, leaving around 1 percent of the total global fresh water supply available to humans.
As global populations have rapidly increased over recent decades, the demand for fresh water has been stretched. Booming societies have given rise to expanded agriculture which demands more water for irrigation. It is therefore understandable that rising freshwater shortages are becoming a major threat to national security for many nations, and steps to secure access to water will be a key aspect of domestic policy in the coming years.
A prime example of this issue involves the Nile, the world’s longest river that runs from Central Africa and flows north to the Mediterranean Sea. Access to its waters is claimed by no fewer than nine countries, although its use has been heavily controlled by Egypt since Africa’s emergence from colonialism in the early 20th century.
The current issue involves Ethiopia’s plan to build a dam on the Blue Nile, one of the two arms of the river, which originates in the Ethiopian highlands and accounts for about 85 percent of all Nile water. Further downstream, much of the Nile passes through Sudan and Egypt. Historically, it is these two countries that have disputed access to the river, as other countries were either too underdeveloped to appropriate water for industry or else were bogged down by civil conflict.
In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement dividing up all Nile river waters between themselves, the majority going to Egypt, while neglecting to allot any access to other countries upstream. To further shore up its use of the Nile, Egypt built the Aswan Dam in the 1970s, seen by many as its most important economic development for years. Throughout the years, Egypt has vehemently insisted that no state interfere with its supply of the Nile, once even threatening to bomb Ethiopian water facilities if it diverted any river waters for irrigation purposes. All this came in spite of the fact that Egypt contributes nothing to the river’s flow.
Ethiopia insists that the planned dam, which will boost hydroelectric power for the country, will not cause any harm to other countries. However, Egypt’s longtime domination of the Nile’s waters, combined with its increasing need for water, will hardly accept such a claim.
However, it is unclear how Egypt will react. The dominant Egyptian state of yesteryear was subdued with the removal of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The fledgling democratic government may lack the capacity to threaten Ethiopia in any significant way, and the distance between the two countries makes the use of ground troops highly doubtful.
On the other hand, Egypt is unlikely to sign any agreement that reduces its current share of the Nile. Unless mediation from a third party is used, Egypt, Ethiopia, and possibly Sudan could be headed for a diplomatic standoff that could turn ugly down the road. Certainly fresh water supply is not going to increase, and as all three countries experience rapid population growth, the necessity to secure water becomes more and more desperate.
This is only the beginning of what will likely be a common phenomenon in the coming years. At least a dozen resource “hot spots” around the world could potentially lead to conflict in the future, and it is imperative that international organizations adapt international law and promote fair agreements among nations contesting access to such resources, if wars are to be avoided.