People go to war when their way of life is threatened. I have written before about the many issues we face in the coming years that threaten our way of life. These include global warming/climate change, pollution, pandemics, nuclear bombs, intelligent machines, genetics, and more.

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More and more I am becoming convinced that the next major regional/global conflict will be over water. We are much more likely to have water wars in the next decade than nuclear ones.

And I were to guess, I’d say that it is most likely to happen in around North East Africa. This is a region with its own internal issues. But it also has the foreign involvement of America, China, the Middle Eastern Arab nations, and (increasingly) Israel. Quite a potent mix…

Last week, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia hosted the 18th regular meeting of the Council of Ministers of Water Affairs of the Nile Basin countries. In the lead up to the conference, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, the five countries that are all upstream of Egypt and Sudan concluded a water-sharing treaty – to the exclusion of Egypt and Sudan. This has obviously reignited the longstanding dispute over water distribution of the world’s longest river in the world’s driest continent.

Egypt is currently the largest consumer of Nile water and is the main beneficiary of a 1929 treaty which allows it to take 55.5 billion cubic metres of water each year, or 87% of the White and Blue Nile’s flow. By contrast, Sudan is only allowed to draw 18.5 billion cubic metres.

On attaining independence Sudan refused to acknowledge the validity of the Nile water treaty and negotiated a new bilateral treaty with Egypt in 1959. Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda also expressly refused to be bound by the treaty when they attained independence, but have not negotiated a new treaty since then.

Under the 1929 treaty, Egypt has powers over upstream projects: The Nile Waters Agreement of 1929 states that no country in the Nile basin should undertake any works on the Nile, or its tributaries, without Egypt’s express permission. This gives Egypt a veto over anything, including the building of dams on numerous rivers in Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and by implication Egypt has control over agriculture, industry and infrastructure and basic services such as drinking water and electricity in these countries. This is surely untenable. But if the other countries broke the treaty, would Egypt respond with force?

Since the late 1990s, Nile Basin states have been trying unsuccessfully to develop a revised framework agreement for water sharing, dubbed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

In May 2009, talks held in Kinshasa broke down because Egypt and Sudan’s historical water quotas were not mentioned in the text of the proposed agreement. Water ministers met again in July 2009 in Alexandria, where Egypt and Sudan reiterated their rejection of any agreement that did not clearly establish their historical share of water. This is an untenable position.

Upstream states accuse Egypt and Sudan of attempting to maintain an unfair, colonial-era monopoly on the river. Egyptian officials and analysts, however, defend their position, pointing out that Egypt is much more dependent on the river for its water needs than its upstream neighbours. Egypt claims that Nile water accounts for more than 95% of Egypt’s total water consumption, although they appear to be working hard to reduce both their water usage (they’re stopping growing rice, for example) and their dependence on the Nile.

This is going to end in tears.

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