Nile River conflictsWinding through some of the driest regions in the world, the Nile River is a lifeline for more than 300 million people. This vital source of freshwater irrigates crops and deposits silt for fertilizer. In addition, hydroelectric dams generate renewable energy. The rivers, lakes and reservoirs of the Nile basin have sustained people and animals for a millennia. As surrounding countries compete for the limited resource, many Nile River conflicts exist.

The Nile and Climate Change

The Nile River is one of the longest rivers in the world, including parts of: Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. Egypt had enjoyed monopoly power over the Nile waters for the majority of the 20th century as granted by British colonial rule. But with climate change, a growing population and increased agriculture, the Nile River is becoming an increasingly valuable resource and people are willing to fight for their share.

These environmentally and politically fragile regions are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Climate change significantly decreases the availability of freshwater, making it a severe threat to all those who depend on the Nile. By the end of the century, heat waves could reduce the flow of the Nile in Egypt by an estimated 75 percent.

Water Scarcity

Although it is rarely the sole cause of an issue, water scarcity exacerbates tensions and can act as a trigger in the Nile River conflicts. Both East Africa and North Africa have politically unstable and violent-prone regions. According to the United Nations of Environmental Protection (UNEP), climate vulnerability, water scarcity and the loss of fertile land were underlying factors in the Darfur conflict.

Northern Africa and the Middle East is the most water-scarce region in the world. Five percent of the population only has access to 1 percent of freshwater. As a result, Egypt and Sudan—the upstream riparian countries—rely almost exclusively on the Nile for water.

Some reasons for the lack of accessible water are natural, like low rainfall and high evaporation rates. However, human activity worsens this natural water shortage. The compounding factors include inefficient water use and mismanagement, especially for agriculture purposes, using old water networks, the high population growth, social and cultural issues, pollution of water sources, and inappropriate legal, political and economic frameworks.

There are also Nile River conflicts in East Africa. With dry seasons getting longer and droughts becoming more common, there has been an increase in tribal conflicts over watering holes in Eastern Kenya and Ethiopia.

Improving Water Sources

Improving the management and efficiency for water usage can help address the water crisis. According to various reports, several trends are emerging to improve water sustainability in North Africa and the Middle East. The first focuses on using solar-powered irrigation to boost water, energy and food security. The second is to treat and reuse wastewater. This largely untapped resource can be productively used in forestry, agriculture, landscaping and replenishing aquifers. However, the viability of these solutions depends on the responses of the implicated governments and societies.

Historically limited in how they can use the Nile, the downstream riparian countries are looking for more ways to capitalize on this vital resource. This includes building dams to control water levels and to generate power, as well as rerouting water for irrigation. Unfortunately, many of these activities decrease the already-limited water available for the countries upstream.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is still under construction. As the largest dam in Africa, it will generate up to 6,450 megawatts of energy. It will be a critical source of power to the 75 million Ethiopians who don’t have electricity. The mega-dam could also provide cheaper electricity to neighboring Sudan and can control the seasonal flooding of the Nile. However, the ability to control the Nile will upset political power and threatens Egypt’s valuable source of water. While filling up the reservoir behind the dam, the water levels of the Nile could drop by 25 percent for up to seven years.

Both Ethiopia and Egypt rely on the Nile for freshwater and power more than the other countries, but an agreement must be reached soon as climate change is bearing down on the Nile basin. By 2050, it is likely that all countries in the Nile basin will be officially categorized as “water scarce.”

Water treaties across the world provide successful examples of countries working together to find ways to share this vital natural resource. Any solutions to the Nile River conflicts will also increase political participation, protect the environment and provide some political stability and security.

Programs to Improve the Nile

The Nile River Basin Initiative, formed in 1999, aims to ensure sustainable and equitable use of the Nile River while promoting prosperity and security. Efficient water use and management was identified as a necessary step to achieving this. The ten member countries are also committed to cooperating and working to find solutions that can benefit everyone. Another key objective of The Nile River Basin Initiative is increasing economic integration and eradicating poverty.

The Shared Vision Program is part of a two-fold approach to realize these objectives. Through eight projects, this umbrella program aims to promote collaboration and joint-problem solving by building institutions, sharing information, doing individual capacity building trainings, and creating platforms for discussions.

The governments involved in the Nile River conflicts have begun to realize that this trans-boundary issue requires trans-boundary solutions. Better management within countries and cooperation between countries are both necessary.

– Liesl Hostetter
Photo: Flickr