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14 July 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 1:50pm

As water scarcity intensifies, so does the battle for resources in the world’s drought-hit regions

From Ethiopia to Ukraine to India, the fight for control over water management systems is sparking conflict. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

The Blue Nile rises in the Ethiopian highlands. It begins in Lake Tana and twists through the north of the country and into Sudan, where it joins the White Nile at Khartoum. From there the silty water flows through Egypt and into the delta, irrigating the densely populated urban strip on its banks, and into the Mediterranean. More than 300 million people rely on the Nile for their irrigation.

If you can understand that geography, you can start to understand the significance of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Completed last summer, it sits downstream of Lake Tana and just upstream of the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. It is being used to fill a giant reservoir for what will be the biggest hydroelectric power plant in  Africa. The rainy season has just begun in the Ethiopian highlands, and the government has started filling the reservoir for the second year, diverting 13.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile. Ethiopia’s government insists that it has the sovereign right to use the river to resolve the country’s energy shortages. Last year Sudan experienced droughts, then floods, which it blamed on the dam. Along with Egypt it protests that Ethiopia is violating international law. On 8 July the matter even ended up before the UN Security Council.

This case tells us two important things about our age of climate crisis. First, as extreme heat, rains and droughts become more common, to control flows of water is to wield an increasingly significant form of geopolitical power. Second, like most unbalanced changes in relative power in human history, the rise of “water power” risks destabilising international affairs and sparking conflict. We may well be drastically underestimating how much this will shape the world in the 21st century.

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Warning signs are everywhere. Tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam have probably contributed to the humanitarian disaster caused by the conflict between the Ethiopian government and the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the country’s north, which has displaced up to two million people. Sudan has been accused by the Ethiopian authorities of being close to the rebels, and has now received hundreds of thousands of refugees. The more relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum deteriorate over the dam, the worse the chances of a resolution to the crisis.

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In Crimea, a part of Ukraine occupied by Russia since 2014, droughts reached extremes last summer. The Black Sea area has always experienced warm summers, but they have been getting hotter and Crimean farmland is becoming less workable. Before the annexation, water from the Dnieper river kept Crimea irrigated. But Russia’s aggression has cut off the region and Ukraine is not inclined to support the annexation by letting water flow again to keep the taps gushing in Sevastopol. That gives Kyiv some leverage in a conflict in which it is much the weaker force. But it also dangerously raises the stakes. When Vladimir Putin massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border in the spring, some wondered whether he wanted to seize the whole of the country’s east and with it control of the Dnieper.

Witness, too, recent political frictions in eastern India. The states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh both sit on the Krishna river and share the Srisailam reservoir that straddles their joint border. In response to the government of Andhra Pradesh building new pumping facilities channelling water into its drought-prone region of Rayalaseema, the government of upstream Telangana has retaliated by starting its own new projects that draw water from the reservoir for hydroelectric power.

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The two governments are taking their dispute to the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. Ironically, they do so as both states face extreme rains – a reminder that water stress is not just about scarcity but also management of flows.

Some have attributed the Syrian Civil War to droughts that inflamed inter-ethnic tensions in the country in the years preceding the Arab Spring. Right now, record or near-record water shortages are afflicting central and southern Brazil, parts of Iran and much of the western US. In America, for example, they are intensifying inter-state tensions: several states have recently brought cases before the US Supreme Court over
water rights.

A report published by the UN in June said that droughts, other forms of water stress and their knock-on effects could be “the next pandemic” – the next great crisis of the interconnected world. So closely linked are instances of water disruption and violence that the World Resources Institute has created an early-warning tool that estimates the risk of conflict for each coming year based on levels of water stress. In 2019, it correctly predicted increased violence in southern Iraq, Mali and Iran in 2020.

Some tout market solutions, yet there are many instances of private firms exploiting water scarcity to make money. Some advocate nationalisation – water is a natural monopoly – but plenty of examples show that state-controlled water provision is no panacea. The answer lies in democratic control of water within states as well as better multilateral mechanisms for preventing conflict between them. On the Blue Nile, mediation between the parties is urgently needed to stop the GERD dispute escalating and to find a compromise between Ethiopia’s energy needs and the hydro security of Sudan and Egypt. A dedicated international body – an International Water Agency reporting to the UN, say – might help anticipate and manage such conflicts.

The term “fundamental” is thrown around a lot. But when it comes to the politics of water – the essence of life, the universal solvent, the most basic of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – it is apt indeed. 

[See also: Jacob Zuma: unrest shakes South Africa after the ex-president’s detention]

This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook