Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Water Politics in the Horn of Africa & The Rest of the Continent

Our recent post related to Lake Victoria encouraged us to look more closely at water politics in the Horn of Africa, and we came across this interesting analysis of the Jubba and Shabelle river basins which are located in this water scarce region also fraught with recurrent droughts, devastating floods, a growing population, interlocking conflicts, weak and failing states, and extreme poverty.  As the paper notes, this is but one of many shared river basins in Africa, a continent with 62% of its land area falling within international water basins and more than 60 shared watercourses, a unenviable situation due primarily to the arbitrary delineation of colonial political boundaries years ago. Thus, while we examine the Horn of Africa today, the lack of integrated management for most of the continent’s transboundary water bodies seems likely to be a potential threat to the entire continent’s regional stability going forward.


Figure 2. Map showing the Jubba and Shabelle River Basins in Horn of Africa.

As the paper notes:

“…The Shabelle and Jubba River Basins are international river basins in the Horn of Africa occupied by Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The two rivers originate from the Bale mountain ranges at an altitude of about 4 000 m in the Ethiopian highlands flowing towards the Indian Ocean crossing the border between Somalia and Ethiopia.

….Considering the possible and potential future water development plans and taking into account the limited amount of water, the water resources in the two rivers will unlikely be able to fulfil the sum of all demands by the basin countries in the future. Potential disputes over the shared rivers are therefore likely to rise in response to political stability and desire of economic development. This may result in competition over the utilization of scarce water in the rivers which together with the current and historical relations between the two basin countries may lead to an international conflict, shifting then the problem from water sharing to national security.

Unilateral developments, which Ethiopia is currently carrying out, will severely impact on downstream country of Somalia, which may also have future plans for development. Increasing demands on and potential disputes over region’s shared rivers are likely to rise, as region’s development plans will require significant increases in water use. This may lead to international conflict, which can shift from water problem to national security. Gleick (1993) notes that such risk for conflict tend to be apparent in arid climate and where the water demand is already approaching or exceeding supply. Wolf (1997) noted that the 1964 border war between Somalia and Ethiopia over Ogaden with some critical water resources as one of the seven of the world’s historical disputes where water was at least partially a cause. Water conflicts in Africa will be inevitable if we do not prevent them from occurring (Ashton, 2000). Joint management of these river basins is therefore a prerequisite for achieving sustainable development. The absence of transboundary agreement on the Jubba and Shabelle can have significant impact on the feasibility of any national water resources development schemes in the future, as it affected in the past. Cooperation and agreements on the utilisation of the rivers water resources are also necessary for securing funding support by donor communities and international financial agencies, which often has a policy not-to-fund a shared river lacking an agreement…”

The paper goes on to examine the Nile River Basin, with an area of about 3 million km², that is geographically shared by ten countries in Africa: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.  It notes that:

“…The only operational agreement that is currently available in the use of the water resources of the Nile River is that between Egypt and Sudan signed in 1959 for full utilisation of the Nile waters. That agreement was only based on the needs of the Egypt and Sudan at the time. Other riparian countries refused to accept the 1959 agreement, which made possible for Egypt and Sudan to undertake a number of water development projects such as the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. When this agreement was signed in 1959, the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses was not in place….”

Given the above, it is almost inevitable that we’ll see continued disputes over the Nile’s resources in the years ahead as well.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 6th, 2008 at 1:45 pm and is filed under Kenya, Nile.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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