How is the struggle for water, such as in Ethiopia and Kenya, shaping conflicts in this century?

How is the struggle for water, such as in Ethiopia and Kenya, shaping conflicts in this century?

As the populations of Ethiopia and Kenya continue to grow, access to that most fundamental of all natural resources — water — is becoming ever more problematic. Ethiopian plans for irrigating 300,000 acres with water diverted from the Blue Nile will impact on nomadic and remote village populations. Today, there is already an enormous migration drive into Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

The Addis Ababa City Water Sewerage Authority (AAWSA) is actively engaged in deep and medium water well drilling programs partly funded by the World Bank, but demand is increasing faster than the projects can keep up. Currently, only about 65% of the demands for potable water within the city are being met, with about 61% of households obtaining their water from public taps. But the city people have it well when compared with the rural population.

For the 4,000 villagers of Katchama, Ethiopia, the main source of local water is usually a nearby pond. The quality of the murky brown pond water deteriorates as it is gradually depleted. When the pond dries up, usually after only two or three weeks, the villagers must make a twelve-hour trek to the Awash River to fill their vessels. The perception among village officials is that the Ethiopian government is not doing enough to educate and instruct the villagers in how to dig their own ponds, much less install piped water.

Problems of water access are becoming more prevalent in upriver nations like Ethiopia and Kenya as more and more Nile River water is diverted for irrigation in the more developed countries downriver. Water issues in the region are not new. They have their roots in the early 1900’s when pressure was put on Egypt and Sudan to increase their production of cotton, which was becoming in short supply worldwide.

The Nile Projects Commission was formed in 1920 to deal with the sharing of Nile River water by Egypt and Sudan, with participation by India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The primary concern was whether control of the Nile River could be better managed upstream or down. The negotiations proceeded through many phases of conflict resolution eventually resulting in the Nile Waters Treaty of 1959.

How is the struggle for water, such as in Ethiopia and Kenya, shaping conflicts in this century?

Ethiopia was determined not to be left out of consideration altogether and in 1957 served notice that it intended to pursue its own program of development. This amounted to a legal claim to Nile water resources within its own territory. The conditions of the treaty are still being observed today, and international conflict was averted through diplomatic negotiation and agreements. The success of the treaty was largely due to the establishment of a pro-Egyptian government in Sudan following a 1958 coup led by General Ibrahim Abboud, who secured very favorable terms for Sudan.

The inherent right of all people to have secure access to water is a fact that is readily acknowledged by the governments of developed and developing nations. The perception of water as a source of conflict and as a cause for future wars is belied by the evidence that is now becoming prevalent, that water can become a valuable tool for fostering peaceful relations among disparate nations. A good example of this is the 2002 signing of a water trade agreement between Israel and Turkey. Following a free-trade agreement in 1996, Turkey has become Israel’s most important trading partner in the region.

Israel is currently in the midst of a serious water crisis because of changing climatic conditions. There was a severe shortage of rainfall during the winters of 1989-99. This has led to a negative balance in usage versus supply. Drought and over-utilization has led to a serious drop in water levels and volumes in Lake Tiberius, the Jordan River tributaries, and the mountain and coastal aquifers. Neighboring states are also affected, especially Palestine. It is believed by some that the water issue may even prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

It may well be that solutions to the Middle East crisis will take the form of aggressive water sharing strategies that cross the boundaries of disputes marking the current political climate, in the interest of peaceful coexistence. This can only occur after the futility of the ongoing struggle is acknowledged by all sides — that there can be no resolution without purposeful dialog.

In 2001, Palestinians destroyed water supply pipelines to the West Bank settlements of Yitzhar and to Kibbutz Kisufim. Protests and riots in Pakistan in 2001 over severe water shortages led to a death, injuries, and arrests. In Ethiopia in 2000, a man was stabbed to death during a fight over clean water. In 2003, the main water pipeline to Baghdad was sabotaged. The list is long.

Whether for military or political gains or because of terrorism, developmental disputes, or the control of resources, water will remain a focus for conflict, but experiences of the past have illustrated that it can also be a useful medium for peace.


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