End in sight for river water wars

Most rivers run through several countries and are of the greatest economic interest to each of the countries. No wonder disputes over the use of rivers goes back to Biblical times and wars have been fought over the issue. Yet, so far there is not a single international treaty on the fair sharing of these […]


Most rivers run through several countries and are of the greatest economic interest to each of the countries. No wonder disputes over the use of rivers goes back to Biblical times and wars have been fought over the issue. Yet, so far there is not a single international treaty on the fair sharing of these waters. Tom Nevin reports that one may be just around the corner.

The African continent is one of the world’s most tropical. Paradoxically it is also the driest, next to Australia. It is home to the majestic Congo, Niger, Zambezi and Nile rivers, landmarks in their own right. But rivers are also flashpoints and wars can and do erupt over their use.

The Congo is Africa’s only river that is virtually mono-national in that it is confined to the Democratic Republic of Congo. That makes exploitation of the river largely unproblematic. The same can’t be said for Africa’s other waterways such as South Africa’s Orange, West Africa’s Niger, southern Africa’s Zambezi and the Nile, that rises in both Uganda and Ethiopia becomes one at Khartoum and then meanders through Sudan and Egypt on its way to the Mediterranean Sea.

Such waterways bring sustenance and transport to millions who would not be there if the rivers were not. They also bring a flood of trouble, some even leading to conflict over who has the right, and how much, of using and influencing them. Remarkably, no broad-based international agreement on sharing rivers currently exists, even though much of the world depends on waters that flow through more than one nation. From the Mekong to the Jordan and the Niger to the Euphrates, there has been nothing to stop upstream countries from building giant dams that cut off all flows downstream.

“And now it is entirely possible that peace is about to break out on the world’s rivers,” reports Fred Pearce, researcher, author and environmental consultant, “because two separate global river treaties are close to being approved.”

Dam builders’ race against time

In what seems a race against a deadline, some countries are charging ahead to implement their hydro dam plans before the axe of the treaties falls. As recently as November last year, Laos began construction of the first dam on the main stem of the lower Mekong River in Southeast Asia in the hope that the Xayaburi dam will help it become the region’s hydroelectric powerhouse. 

Ethiopia is on a mission to tap into the rivers that run through it and help realise the 45,000MW that could be generated by hydro schemes on its water courses alone. And it has an early call on the hydro power of the Blue Nile, rising as it does in Ethiopia’s Lake Tara. Uganda has just completed the Bujagali on the White Nile.

Some 800km of the Blue Nile’s 1,450km total length runs through Ethiopia and tempts engineers with an assortment of ideal dam building sites along its gorges, over 1,500m deep in places. The Ethiopian government’s energy monopoly, Ethiopia Electric Energy Corporation, has begun work on the Renaissance Dam on the Nile, destined to be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric scheme.

Did the downstream nations of Sudan and Egypt kick up a fuss at the prospect of so large an obstruction across the river.? Such lamentations would have fallen on deaf ears because they weren’t asked for their opinion in the first place.

And that typifies the need for the River Treaty. As populations grow and exert more pressure on water resources, tempers rise accordingly, giving weight to the region’s most often quoted prophecy, that “the next war will be fought over water”. One more is being added: “Water is the most important global resource that does not have any international agreement.” A most dangerous scenario has been allowed to develop. Two examples on opposite sides of the globe highlight the ticking bomb.

“Guinea threatens to barricade the River Niger, which could dry out the inner Niger Delta, a wetland jewel on the edge of the Sahara in neighbouring Mali,” Pearce points out.

According to World Bank lawyer Salman MA Salman, the amount of water taken from rivers has tripled in the past 50 years, mostly for irrigation. “The entire flows of some rivers are now being taken for human use,” he reports, “and the natural flows of many others are disrupted by hydroelectric dams that only allow water to pass when the dam owners want electricity.”

Pearce observes that existing treaties often date back to colonial times. “In international law,” he maintains, “the Nile is governed by deals drawn up by the British in 1929 and 1959. These give all the water to downstream Egypt and Sudan and none to the eight upstream nations. Those laws are discredited, and in 2010, six upstream nations led by Ethiopia reached their own accord – a treaty that Egypt and Sudan have not joined.”

Hope springs eternal

So, with the global ringing of the alarm bells, how close are we to a deal that will ensure everyone gets the amount of water they need? And are there really signs of deliverance amid the wreckage of the current hydrological anarchy on the world’s rivers?

Pearce records that back in 1997, the UN agreed to a “convention on the non-navigable uses of international watercourses” . (See box.) It did not lay down hard-and-fast rules for sharing waters, but it was a statement of principle that nations should ensure the “sustainable and equitable use of shared rivers”. It was a positive step forward and only three countries cast “nay” votes – China, Turkey and Burundi – all upstream on major rivers.

“To come into force,” says Pearce, “the treaty requires 35 nations to ratify it in their legislatures. To date only 28 countries have done so. Other refuseniks include the US and Britain, an original sponsor of the treaty. But the momentum for ratification is picking up. Eight of the 28 ratifiers did so in the last three years.

France has become a cheerleader for the convention. Jean-Pierre Thébault, France’s environment ambassador, hopes enough nations will join for it to come into force this year, the UN’s International Year of Water Cooperation.”

Another treaty nearing ratification is the Helsinki Convention River Water Arrangement created in 1992 to foster cooperation between European nations. However, a meeting this year will decide on whether or not to allow any nation to join, including those in Africa.

According to France’s Thébault the two treaties could complement each other. The Helsinki Convention is also likely to extend its purview over the sharing of underground water reserves such as managing the Nubian aquifer beneath Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Chad. It is currently being tapped by Libya.

So the signs are good that greater sharing of the world’s rivers could be imminent. David Grey, a water policy expert formerly with the World Bank and now at Oxford University, says there is growing recognition of the need for global oversight of the world’s water. He says it could, at the least, end the habitual hydrological secrecy of many upstream nations, who treat river flow data as state secrets

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