Last January, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington, D.C. for urgent discussions about a water project, the Renaissance Dam. While the dam would clearly benefit Ethiopia, it would also add to the growing water stresses that affect millions of Egyptians. The risks of a major violent confrontation over this issue seemed imminent until the negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement. While tensions have temporarily abated, the situation is unstable, as current trends point to continuous and increasingly acute water crises in the region. These crises will inevitably result in deeper tensions and more frequent confrontations.
Farmers along the 4000-mile course of the Nile River already experience recurrent and significant water shortages, which in turn create a highly conflictive environment in the region.
The conflicts over water in the Nile Basin are not an isolated case. In fact, they have become a common occurrence in many parts of the world propelling water scarcity and the conflicts it feeds to the top of international concerns. For example, the 2019 World Economic Forum Global Risks report identifies water conflicts as one of the three main global risks. The report warns water crises could lead to profound social instability and even to violent interstate confrontations.
Conflicts over water are nothing new. In the last 3000 years, no fewer than 900 major confrontations over access to water broke out. Today, the probabilities of an all-out, water-led conflict are growing due to the dramatic imbalances in water availability. Studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and United Nations estimate that by 2025, two thirds of the world’s population will suffer significant water shortages and by 2050, one-half will suffer extreme scarcity. More than a third of major cities, such as Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Mexico City, New Delhi and Los Angeles are already experiencing extreme water stress. In 2008, the city of Cape Town barely escaped the so-called Day Zero, the day when all its dams would dry up. A 2019 study published by Earth’s Future indicates that U.S. states like New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska will have to act urgently if they want to prevent severe water-shortage problems. Wang Schucheng, China’s former minister of water resources has stated: “To fight for every drop of water or die: that is the challenge facing China.” When access to water becomes a matter of life and death for a country with a fifth of the world’s population, the probabilities of violent water-wars become significant.