Hundreds of rivers are shared between two or more countries, which can be a source of cooperation or conflict.
Le Ethiopian Renaissance Grand Dam Project on the Nile entered service in February 2022. It has heightened tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. These three countries are the most dependent on Nile water. Both Sudan and Egypt view the $4,6 billion dam as a threat to their vital water supplies. Ethiopia considers it essential to its development.
This is just one example of many conflicts that can arise between states that share river basins. And these conflicts are likely to become more frequent with rising temperatures global.
Hundreds of rivers are shared between two or more countries. Sharing the waters can be a source of cooperation or conflict. It depends on the economic, cultural and institutional conditions. It also depends on historical relationships Between the countries.
Although cooperation historically trumps conflict and large-scale violent international conflicts have not occurred so far, tensions around water have been around for a long time. They increase in several river basins.
Africa matters 66 transboundary river basins. These include the Nile basin and the Juba-Shebelle and Lake Turkana basins in the Horn of Africa. The risk of conflict may increase with population growth, intensification of water use and climate change.
There is no consensus on the precise mechanisms that fuel conflicts in these basins. However, it is possible to identify the areas where the risks are expected to increase. This can be done by combining data on conflict risk conditions identified in existing literature.
In a recent study that I conducted with three water systems researchers from IHE Delft, Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research, we came up with three possible scenarios regarding the risks of conflict in basins global cross-border rivers.
Our study predicts that if nothing changes substantially in the management of transboundary river basins and if climate change worsens, 920 million people will live in basins at very high to high risk of conflict by 2050.
If nations improve water use, strengthen cooperation and do more to prevent or mitigate conflict, that number will drop to 536 million.
Water treaties and strong river basin organizations increase the likelihood of stable, long-term cooperation between states.
Our study combines projections on mega-dam construction and institutional resilience. It examined hydroclimatic, governance and socio-economic risk factors. The combination of these factors provided an idea of the overall risk of conflict per transboundary river basin.
We have used a broad interpretation of conflicts over transboundary water resources. These can be accusations, diplomatic tensions, economic sanctions or violent conflicts.
A lack of cooperation between countries can result in the loss of benefits that could accrue from joint activities. These include adaptation to climate change, environmental protection and socio-economic development. Tensions between states on these issues can also spill over into other sectors, undermining regional political or economic relations.
Our results show that in a business as usual scenario – where no major changes are made – 920 million people on the 4,4 billion people living in transboundary river basins will live in basins at very high to high conflict risk by 2050. In Africa, this number includes people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia , Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. It also includes people from Mozambique, Malawi, Benin and Togo.
In the “high ambition” scenario, which involves improved water use practices and greater institutional resilience, that number drops to 536 million. The “low ambition” scenario implies some improvement in water use efficiency, institutional capacity and quality of governance. Under this scenario, 724 million people would live in very high to high conflict risk basins by 2050.
The basins of Africa and Asia in particular should face high global risks, as several risks collide there. In Africa, several basins face additional risks such as high variability of water flows and limited water availability. The downstream countries also depend on the upstream countries.
Current tensions on the Nile over the ethiopia grand renaissance dam, for example, could get worse when Ethiopia decides to build several new hydroelectric mega-dams. Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Sudan are very dependent on water resources linked to the basin.
What it means
Our study shows that 11 other large hydroelectric dams could be built in the Nile basin. These forecasts are based on physical feasibility, energy efficiency and construction costs. The projection takes into account certain restrictions, such as protected nature reserves.
Seven of these dams would be located in Ethiopia and the other four in South Sudan. The construction of these dams would take place against a backdrop of growing water shortages, high water dependencies and limited economic resources to deal with water-related risks.
These new dams could aggravate the effects of regional climate change and water needs, especially when the population and economy are growing. Although specialists cannot predict when this will happen, a multi-year drought in the Nile basin is inevitable. This would have serious consequences for the distribution of water.
The prospect of a multi-year drought in parts of the Nile Basin requires preparations now. And while the impact of new dams will be moderate, the perception of risk could affect how Egypt, for example, makes decisions about shared river cooperation.
Two other major basins – the Juba-Shebelle in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, and the Lake Turkana basin in Kenya and Ethiopia – are expected to face high levels of conflict risk. In these two basins, multiple problems, such as local conflicts, low human development and limited water availability, collide here today.
This situation could worsen if additional efforts are not made by 2050, due to relatively high population growth and the effects of climate change, without sufficient resources to adapt.
Even in our very ambitious scenario, which involves substantial improvements in water management, overall national governance and institutional resilience, the Juba-Shebelle and Lake Turkana basins still face high risks.
The challenges and risks these basins face need to be explicitly included in broader plans. For example, when large hydroelectric dams are built, their operation should not hamper the climate adaptation goals of the entire region.