Water Security – Fighting With Water Guns

Aurelia van Eeden

We depend on water for our food and energy production, transportation, waste disposal, industrial development and human health. It is because of these characteristics that the topics of “water” and “security” are being assessed alongside one another all the more frequently. “Water security” together with other buzzwords such as “energy security” and “food security” have become an essential and customary part of shaping global diplomatic and security discourse (Zala 2012). According to a study done by the UN, by 2025 more than 3 billion people will be living in 30 countries which will experience water stress, a state at which annual water supply drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita (Human Development Report 2006). Amongst these countries, 18 will be from the already troublesome area of the Middle East including Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Israel/Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen (Darwish 1994).

Hydro-politics and Water Security

The historic account of water related disputes vary on a scale ranging from communal rivalry and civil conflicts, inter-state tensions, insurgency and more recently terrorism. A recent account of the latter includes the agreement by Sudan to host an Egyptian airbase in Kuris in the west of the Darfur region in response to Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This dam will host Africa’s largest hydro-electricity facility, a reservoir expected to hold 63 billion cubic meters of water. The Egyptian airbase will be in striking range of the Renaissance Dam and could be used to launch an Egyptian assault if diplomatic efforts regarding the use of the Nile’s water fail (Tedesse 2012). Aiding to the above situation, increasing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from countries such as the US and China could potentially enhance the tension among riparian states as it supports the different, often contested development programmes of riparian countries. Set against the backdrop of the uncertainty of Climate Change impacts, and in the strategic value of this finite resource, military planners and strategists have their work cut out for them.

Water without boundaries

The characteristics of a transboundary water body exempt no region of the world from the controversies that exists between countries over it. It is a combination of the aforementioned phenomena that captures the attention of security analysts as water scarcity has the potential to ignite political conflict over this finite resource, especially as a significant portion of this resource is contained in international drainage basins. These international drainage basins account for up to 47% of the Earth’s area (excluding Antarctica) and some 60% of the area of both Africa and Latin America (Biswas 1991; McCaffrey 1993). Despite growing importance in the management of transboundary water management, international agreements are inadequate or even lacking entirely.

FDIs and Ethio-Egypt relations

It is worth noting China’s increasing involvement in being an important source of alternative financial support for Ethiopian projects along the Nile. Land and water constraints faced by countries such as China, India and Arab countries have increased the opportunity for agricultural investments in Africa, along with the unilateral development of governmental infrastructure projects, such as dams to support this expansion. Approximately one-third of all-foreign investment in Ethiopia can be attributed to the rapidly increasing trend of “agricultural investments” which rocketed from a total of US$45 million in 2000 to over US$3200 million in 2008 (Bossio et al. 2012). This support has allowed the construction of projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to create much tension between the Nile riparian states, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia as mentioned earlier. This is due to the impact that the dam will have on the quantity and quality of water that reaches the lower riparian states. El-Bay argues that “the presence of countries like China, Korea and Israel in the Nile Basin states and their rapidly growing investment there are also dangerous signs that could lead to further differences among the states in the future” (El-Bey 2012). Could Africa be the playing ground for the next “Arm’s Race”, and what does this mean, not only for the availability and distribution of the Nile waters, but also for the security of those living in riparian communities?

The only way to ensure that the Nile Riparian states keep afloat and avoid future conflict during a time of increasing demand on the Nile waters will be to focus on systematic collaboration among all stakeholders. Riparian states should take up ownership for the security of their own people and focus on the maximization of mutual benefits to all riparian states while simultaneously contribute to social, economic and political development within the region (Tedesse 2012).

Further reading:

Biswas, A. (1991). Water for sustainable development. A global perspective. In vol. 5 Development and Cooperation, pp. 17-20. Berlin: German Foundation for International Development

Bossio, D., Erkossa, T., Dile, Y., McCartney, M., Killiches, F. & Hoff, H. (2012). Water implications of foreign direct investment in Ethiopia’s agricultural sector. Water Alternatives, 5 (2): 223-242.

Darwish, A. (1994). Water: The next major conflict in the Midel East Geneva conference: Environment and Quality of Life: Mideast News 1994. Available here (accessed: 29 October 2012).

El-Bey, D. (2012). The River Nile: bridge ot barrier? Al-Ahram Weekly On-line. Cairo: Al-Ahram. Available here (accessed: 1 November 2012).

Human Development Report. (2006). Beyond Scarsity: Power, poverty and the global water cricis. New York: United Nations.

McCaffrey, S. C. (1993). Water, Politics, and International law. In Gleick, P. H. (ed.) Water in Crisis, pp. 92-104. USA: oxford University Press.

Tedesse, D. (2012). Is a War over the Nile Still Imminent? News on ISS Africa. ISS Addis Ababa: Institute for Security Studies. Available here (accessed: 18 October 2012).

Zala, B. (2012). Water Scarcity: The Real and Virtual Problems. Available here(accessed: 25 October 2012).