It was nearly 20 years ago that Ismail Serageldin raised the alarm bell. “The wars of the next century will be fought over water,” he said, at a time when oil dominated geopolitical strategy. Serageldin is one of Egypt’s most prominent public intellectuals – he was a vice-president at the World Bank at the time, and he’s now director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria – and his warning caused a stir. Could the world really run out of water?
In his part of the world, the danger is obvious. North Africa is dry and arid, and water is scarce at the best of times. Climate change – already happening rapidly, according to the UN’s latest report – will exacerbate this scarcity, as will a growing population.
If nations will fight over land and resources, and of course they do, then how much more will they fight over access to the single most important resource of them all?
Egypt is already feeling the pressure. It gets pretty much all its water from the Nile River, and always has – ancient Egyptians sometimes called their land the “gift of the Nile”, because they knew it was otherwise uninhabitable. Satellite images of the country show the same thing: a thin, winding strip of green and blue in a vast expanse of desert.
But Egypt’s Nile is under threat. Led by Ethiopia, downstream nations have begun to demand that they get their fair share of the river too. Historically, Egypt has had the river all to itself thanks to a colonial-era treaty which guarantees it the lion’s share of Nile water, and for many years it and neighboring Sudan were the only Nile Basin countries developed enough to take advantage of the river.
That’s changed. Ethiopia has already begun construction on the mammoth Grand Renaissance Dam, and has temporarily diverted the river’s flow to do so. It intends to use the dam for hydroelectricity, and also plans to use more river water for irrigation. In other words, Ethiopia is going to mess with Egypt’s water supply – not only by extracting water out of the Nile Basin system, but also by giving Addis Ababa the power to turn Egypt’s water on and off at will.
If Serageldin’s ominous warning is right, then conflict might not be too far away. And indeed there has been some very aggressive rhetoric from Cairo, especially in the build-up to the recent presidential elections: some politicians threatened to go to war over the issue, while one official was caught on camera suggesting that the dam be sabotaged.
But no shots have been fired. And nor are they likely to be, if history is anything to go by.
In a recent Unesco study, researchers found, counter-intuitively, that water rarely if ever led to conflict. Instead, the opposite was true – that disputes over water actually encouraged cooperation.
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