Water: a source of conflict?


It’s not surprising that water is seen as a source of life. Not only do we need it to stay alive, it’s also essential for fulfilling other basic human needs like growing crops or keeping kettle. While some countries have enough water to go around, other places struggle with providing the bare minimum to keep people alive. In part, this is caused by the fact that water flows freely and thus doesn’t follow the geographical borders we set up, which means some countries don’t have solid water supplies and others have to share. Not only has this caused conflicts in the past, it’s unlikely to happen again.

A water conflict is best described as a conflict between countries, states or groups over access to water resources. The reasons for these conflicts can variate, but most of the time it’s because of a combination of lack of potable water, trade, fishing, pollution or keeping the natural habitat of a place. Though barely any wars have been fought about just water, it’s often a contributing factor for the friction between countries that eventually lead to a war taking place. There are many conflicts about water around the world, like the war over water between Israel and its neighbours in the 1960s, but there are also more recent examples.

Ebro Delta
Water conflicts can also play out on a “small”, national scale, like the friction between the Spanish government, Catalonia and the PDE, La Plataforma en Defensa de l’Ebre (Platform for the defense of the Ebro Delta). The Ebro delta is the delta of 925 km long river the Ebro, which originates from the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain and flows through Calahorra, Zaragoza and Tivenys, among other cities, before reaching the Mediterranean Sea near Tortosa. It’s one of the largest wetlands areas in the Western Mediterranean region. In 1983 a large part of the delta was designed as a national park because of the large variety of unique flora and fauna that can be found in this area. Even though this means this part of the delta has to be protected, in 2013 the Spanish government came with the “Plan Nacional Hidrico”. This plan entails that 120 dams will be built upstream in the Ebro to redirect the water towards more dry regions in southern Spain. Additionally, a lot of the water is already used upstream for agriculture, mainly rice. The “Plan Nacional Hidrico” will cause the river to dry up even more, and thus threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Ebro delta according to the PDE. Because of the decrease in flowrate of the Ebro, the river is unable to pick up as much mud as it used to, which means less sediments will reach the delta and it won’t be able to raise anymore. Furthermore, the decreased flowrate entails that the river isn’t strong enough anymore to compete with the sea which causes salt water to stream into the country.

Additionally to the ecological threat, there’s also a symbolic resistance to the plan, since the river flows through Catalonia and the plan couldn’t be carried out if Catalonia were a country on its own. Because of this, protests against the national water plan were abundant. So much so that, after a protest in 2016 that attracted over 50,000 people, Six MEPs from the Committee on Petitions visited the Ebro Delta to see whether the plan may infringe the EU Water Framework Directive. In July 2016, the European Parliament urged Spain to stop the plan after the MEP assessment.

Egypt and Ethiopia
The Nile is commonly regarded as the longest river in the world, being 6,853 km. It has a catchment basin stretching over 11 countries and flows through 9. These countries are Egypt, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Zaire. Though it is a water source to many, it’s an important primary water source to Egypt and Sudan in particular. In 1929 Egypt and the British Nile colonies signed a treating granting Egypt the right to veto projects that can possibly negatively influence their water share. Yet in 2011, Ethiopia made the plans for building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam public. These plans entailed that a large dam would be built in the region of Benishangul-Gumaz. This Dam will be the largest in Africa having a total volume of 74,000 m3. The dam has been under construction since 2011 and by now, 70% of its construction is finished.

The dam will have many benefits for Ethiopia. One of the largest benefits will be the hydropower production, which will support the development of the whole country. During the raining season, the surplus of energy will be sold to neighbouring countries like Sudan and Egypt. Another big benefit will be the fact that, since the reservoir will be very large, they expect there to be up to 7000 tonnes of fish every year.

While most long term effects are unknown, Egypt is afraid that there’ll be a temporary reduction of water availability when the damn is filling up, which can take anywhere between 1 to 5 years; this may affect the income of two million farmers. Another of Egypt’s concerns is a permanent reduction of water because of evaporation from the reservoir, though studies have shown this negative impact can be minimized or even eliminated altogether.

In 2012, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan established an international panel consisting of ten members to study reports of the dam. The panel visited the dam and reviewed documents about the impact of the dam. Though the eventual report made by the panel was not made public, both countries found information in it to support their own views and made these public.

In 2013 Egyptian political leaders made clear that they were willing to explore ideas about destroying the dam during a discussion of the reports of the panel. What they did not know was that the discussion was broadcasted live, which caused Ethiopia to ask for further explanation about this. The Egyptian ambassador made clear that Egypt apologized and tried to keep an amicable relation with its neighbours based on mutual respect and no party harming the other. However, he later added that, while he was not calling for a war, all options were open because “they could not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered”.

In 2014 Egypt stopped negotiation about the dam because of Ethiopia’s alleged unwillingness to change their views, while Ethiopia countered that Egypt tried to halt the overall built of the dam. In March of 2015, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt signed a treaty about the water usage in the Blue Nile which allowed the tension between the countries to decrease.

In short, water conflicts are still abundant in the world and might even increase in coming years, since water is extremely essential for agriculture, nature and life as a whole. However, research from the International Water Management Institute and Oregon State Institute that most disputes about just a water supply are more likely to end in cooperation than in conflict. Most actual conflicts are a mix of different issues, with water only being part of it.

This article was published in our December 2017 issue.

Top photo: by Rod Waddington, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42119947.


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