If there's ever a water war in Africa, its 'real' cause will surprise us all

In the past century, 94 out of a total of 145 water agreements in the world have been signed in Africa.

LAST week, Ethiopia was in talks with Egypt and Sudan over the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile, agreeing to have additional studies done on the impact that the dam could have on Egypt and Sudan’s Nile water levels.

Coming out of the meeting, the Egyptian water minister was optimistic, saying “85% of issues” around the building of the dam “had been resolved” in the latest round of talks.

The dam’s first phase is expected to be complete at the end of the year, but at its outset it was vehemently opposed by Egypt which feared a drop in the levels of the Nile. It’s a matter of life and death for Egypt, which depends on the Nile for 97% of its freshwater needs.

But the controversy over the Renaissance Dam isn’t unique to the Nile Basin. UNEP’s Africa Water Atlas highlights a complex, an potentially explosive, reality - that Africa has more rivers shared by three or more countries than any other continent.

In the past century, nearly two-thirds of all international water agreements have been signed in Africa (94 out of a total of 145 agreements), dating back to the late 1800s.

The devil is in the ‘small’ waters 

These days everyone talks about “water wars”, and how the Israeli-Arab conflict, for example, is ultimately over water. The story might be different in Africa. While the continent’s big rivers get all the attention, the real source of conflict might be surprising and very unlikely.

Many African countries, especially arid ones, rely on groundwater aquifers to meet their freshwater demand. Groundwater represents just 15% of the continent’s freshwater resources, but it is a source of drinking water for three out of four Africans.

UNEP notes that the cities of Lusaka, Windhoek, Kampala, Addis Ababa and Cairo are highly dependent on groundwater for municipal water, and groundwater contributes to the supply of other cities such as Lagos, Abidjan, Cape Town and Pretoria.

UNEP is now sounding the alarm that it is time for groundwater treaties, as some of Africa’s important aquifers are losing water faster than the rate of recharge, such as those found in large sedimentary basins of? Lake Chad, and under the Sahara desert.

In the coming decades, Africa’s ever-growing population will certainly increase the demand for water, and the possibility for conflicts between trans-boundary nations could rise (READ: 2.4bn Africans in 2050; which country will be best to find work, land to farm, and wives?)

Some countries are more vulnerable than others, as the majority of their freshwater originates outside the country borders. UNEP calls it the “water dependency ratio”, which is the proportion of total renewable water resources originating from outside of a country, given as a percentage and usually used to compare how different countries depend on external water resources.

Africa’s most water self-sufficient countries are not necessarily the wettest—some desert lands, such as Libya, Algeria and Tunisia are self-sufficient because they rely on groundwater aquifers located within the country’s borders.

Not surprisingly, women pay highest price

For those with big rivers, countries upstream, like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda (Nile river), Guinea (Niger and Senegal rivers) and Angola (Zambezi river) are less vulnerable than those downstream.

Egypt, Mauritania, Niger, Botswana and Sudan have the highest water dependency ratios in Africa, making them the most vulnerable to the actions of other nations. So any time there is a trans-border issue, these are likely to be the biggest noise makers.

But as nations bicker, in the day-to-day scheme of things, women continue to be the hardest-hit by the troubles of finding water. Women often perform between 65 and 72% of water collection duties in Africa, and some African women even spend as much as 40 per cent of their daily nutritional intake travelling to collect water.


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