By Russell SmithBBC
November 15, 1999
The main conflicts in Africa during the next 25 years could be over that most precious of commodities - water, as countries fight for access to scarce resources. Potential 'water wars' are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country, according to a UN Development Programme (UNDP) report. The possible flashpoints are the Nile, Niger, Volta and Zambezi basins.
The report predicts population growth and economic development will lead to nearly one in two people in Africa living in countries facing water scarcity or what is known as 'water stress' within 25 years. Water scarcity is defined as less than 1,000 cu.m of water available per person per year, while water stress means less than 1,500 cu.m of water is available per person per year. The report says that by 2025, 12 more African countries will join the 13 that already suffer from water stress or water scarcity
The influential head of environmental research institute Worldwatch, Lester Brown, believes that water scarcity is now "the single biggest threat to global food security".
He says that if the combined population of the three countries the Nile runs through - Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt - rises as predicted from 150 million today to 340 million in 2050 then there could be intense competition for increasingly limited water resources. "There is already little water left when the Nile reaches the sea," he says. And he predicts that Egypt is unlikely to take kindly to losing out to Ethiopia - a country with one-tenth of its income.
Indeed water is already a catalyst for regional conflict. In the dying years of the previous Ethiopian government, tensions with Egypt increased rapidly when the rulers in Addis Ababa pondered the construction of dams on the Nile.
There is also another potential water war in Southern Africa involving Botswana, Namibia and Angola. The River Cuito which begins in Angola before heading through the Caprivi strip in Namibia and ending in the marshlands of the Okavango Delta in Botswana runs through an area that is no stranger to tensions and conflict between neighbours.
Fresh water is also becoming increasingly unusable because of pollution. But given increasing populations Worldwatch identifies one way of easing demands for water - importing grain.
Agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in Africa accounting for 88% of water use. It takes about 1,000 tonnes of water to produce every tonne of grain. Worldwatch says that already the water needed to produce the annual combined imports of grain by the Middle East and North Africa is equivalent to the annual flow of the Nile.
Importing grain is much easier than importing water, but for poorer countries in Africa it may not be an option. For this reason the UN proposes monitoring worldwide reserves of drinking water and establishing agreements for the use of water.