Friday, February 26, 2010

Africa Faces Water War Threats

Africa – a continent already plagued by conflict – can look forward to even greater discord in the years ahead due to the lack of sufficient water for growing populations. Our government, other donors and international organizations must do something about this issue to prevent problems that will at some point affect us all.

Potential “water wars” already are showing signs of gathering critical mass in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by countries. Thirteen African countries already experience water stress or water scarcity, and 12 more are set to join their ranks by 2025. The most likely flash points are around the Nile, Niger, Volta and Zambezi basins.

The Nile runs through Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, and their combined populations – at current growth rates – could rise from today’s 150 million people to 340 million by 2050. Long before then, however, the long-running conflict over the Nile’s water could spark warfare. As far back as 1991, Egypt warned that it was ready to use force to protect its access to the waters of the Nile. Less and less of the Nile’s water remains once the river reaches the sea.

The Niger River, which flows from Guinea through Mali to Nigeria, is vital for food, water and transport, especially to Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries. Pollution is making the Niger’s water increasingly unusable.

Southern Africa’s Zambezi River is one of the world’s most overused river systems. Nations such as Zambia and Zimbabwe compete fiercely to harness its water power, although at times there is heavy rains and flooding. Zimbabwe caused the region to experience the worst floods in recent history in 2000 when it opened the Kariba dam gates.

Ghana, a star among African countries, is dependent on the Volta River for its hydroelectric output, but regular droughts make its production of electricity from the Akosombo Dam erratic and limit Ghana’s ability to sustain its economic growth. Less output from the dam not only constrains Ghana’s ability to produce its own power, but also its ability to provide power to neighbors.

In some ways, economic development worsens limited water situations. Nearly two-thirds of Africa’s people earn their living in agriculture, which is the sector that uses the most water in Africa, accounting for an estimated 88% of water use. Since its takes about a thousand tons of water to produce each ton of grain, any progress in agricultural output in Africa will further stress limited water supplies.

There are two other sources of conflict involving water in Africa. Thanks to colonial boundary-setting, which used rivers to mark national borders, shifting of rivers due to dwindling water flows can change borders and cause war. Several years ago, Eritrea and Ethiopia engaged in a destructive border war, and shooting broke out a few years later over the Bakassi Peninsula, whose territory has long been disputed by Nigeria and Cameroon. Botswana and Namibia managed to avoid a shooting war over the disputed Sedudu/Kasikili Island in the Chobe River that divides them by resorting to, and so far accepting, a ruling by the International Court of Justice assigning ownership of the island to Botswana.

Water projects are among the largest public works projects known, and like any public works projects, they attract corruption. Unfortunately, corrupt water practices not only rob governments of income, but also prevents citizens from having access to water that should be available to them. Corruption is estimated to raise the price of water services between 10 and 30%. Such unanticipated increases in the cost of providing safe drinking water means fulfilling the Millennium Development Goal of cutting in half the number of people without access to safe drinking water in African countries may not be reached.

When people become desperate for drinking water, even tainted water is seen as a source of life. Unfortunately, drinking unsafe water leads to waterborne diseases such as botulism, cholera, e. coli, dysentery and typhoid fever. These diseases affect large numbers of citizens and can retard economic development, divert government monies that could be spent in profitable pursuits and diminishes the productive population of countries.

American civil society and the business sector must do all we can through our own efforts and through advocacy aimed at our government and international organizations to prevent Africa from drying up before our eyes. We need to support projects to provide drinking water, policies to coordinate the use of shared water, preservation of existing water by eliminating pollution and programs to efficiently use the water that exists, including recycling water where possible.

We must act now or a thirst that cannot be satisfied will overtake societies now poised to join the global economy.


  1. Just an FYI, wanted to share a blog we did today (please feel free to cross-post) about our travels in Gaborne, Botswana. We blog everyday from all over Africa at a website call Border Jumpers ( and for the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet (

    Here is the link: "1,000 Words About Botswana"

    Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg (aka borderjumpers)

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