by Aly Jonas

920 million people facing conflicts linked to waterways by 2050?

920 millions de personnes confrontées à des conflits liés aux cours d’eau d’ici à 2050 ?

Hundreds of rivers are shared between two or more countries, which can be a source of cooperation or conflict.

THE Ethiopian Renaissance Grand Dam Project on the Nile entered service in February 2022. It has increased tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. These three countries are the most dependent on Nile water. Sudan and Egypt see 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 increasing temperatures global.

Hundreds of rivers are shared between two or more countries. Water sharing can be a source of cooperation or conflict. It depends on economic, cultural and institutional conditions. It also depends on the historical relationships Between the countries.

Although cooperation historically trumps conflict and although large-scale violent international conflicts have not occurred so far, tensions over water have existed 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 basins where the risks are expected to worsen. This can be done by combining data on conflict risk conditions identified in the existing literature.

In a recent study which I conducted with three water systems researchers from IHE Delft, Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research, we proposed three possible scenarios regarding the risks of conflict in basins global transboundary rivers.

Our study projects that if nothing substantially changes in the management of transboundary river basins and 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 fall to 536 million.

Strong water treaties and river basin organizations increase the likelihood of stable, long-term cooperation between states.

Our study

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 made it possible to get an idea of ​​the overall risk of conflict per transboundary river basin.

We used a broad interpretation of conflicts over transboundary water resources. These may include accusations, diplomatic tensions, economic sanctions or violent conflicts.

A lack of cooperation between countries can result in a loss of benefits that could arise from joint activities. These include adaptation to climate change, environmental protection and socio-economic development. Tensions between states on these issues may also extend to other sectors, compromising regional political or economic relations.

Our results

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 cross-border river basins will live in basins at very high to high risk of conflict by 2050. In Africa, this number includes people in 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, this number declines 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 basins at very high to high risk of conflict by 2050.

The African and Asian basins in particular are expected to face high overall risks, as several risks collide there. In Africa, several basins face additional risks such as high variability of water flows and limited water availability. Downstream countries also depend on upstream countries.

Current tensions on the Nile over Ethiopia's 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 more 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 increasing water shortages, high dependencies on water, and limited economic resources to address water-related risks.

These new dams could worsen the effects of regional climate change and water needs, especially when the population and economy are growing. Although experts cannot predict when this will happen, a multi-year drought in the Nile basin is inevitable. This would have serious consequences for water distribution.

The prospect of multi-year drought in parts of the Nile Basin requires preparations now. And while the impact of the new dams will be moderate, the perception of risk could affect how Egypt, for example, makes decisions on 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 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 must be explicitly included in broader plans. For example, when large hydroelectric dams are built, their operation should not hinder the climate adaptation goals of the entire region.

Sophie de Bruin, Researcher in Environmental Change, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license.