Water Conflicts in Africa Strain Political, Economic Systems


CORVALLIS, Ore. - The water conflicts in Africa - lakes that are drying up, river pollution, unsafe drinking water, collapsing fisheries - are sufficiently intense that entire social systems are at risk, a new report concludes. It's essential that problems be anticipated and aggressively addressed, experts say.

The study, "Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Resilience along International Waters in Africa," was supported by the United Nations Environmental Programme. It was produced by the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters, an innovative consortium pioneered by Oregon State University.

In the report, local and international researchers outline water problems, opportunities and issues facing Africa, which has 63 international river basins and many competing water demands for agriculture, hydroelectric power, fisheries, recreation and environmental protection.

"In terms of water conflicts, parts of northern and southern Africa are in comparatively good shape," said Aaron Wolf, an associate professor of geosciences at OSU and an expert in water management and conflict resolution. "In these areas, there are some fairly resilient political and economic institutions that have tough issues to deal with, but the ability to work through them."

In other parts of this vast continent, however, the conflicts over water and many other issues may stretch the abilities of local institutions to manage them.

"With water issues, we tend to think of things like pollution, or supply and demand," Wolf said. "Of course that is important. But in large parts of Africa the real issue is one of resilience, whether the ecosystem, economy and political structure can handle these stresses without collapsing. The balance of these forces in some countries is very tenuous, and it's essential that the world community understand just how difficult the problems are and provide the help necessary to address them."

The new report provides an overview of those problems, Wolf said, and will be used by the U.N. to identify problem areas, suggest ways to mitigate conflicts and provide a framework for action. The study is the first of five volumes of its type that will examine water conflict issues all over the world. A key collaborator on this report was the Africa Water Issues Unit at the University of Pretoria.

The study also reflects the expanding work under way in the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters - a collaboration formed at OSU in 2002 that is active around the world, conducts workshops, operates international educational programs, trains water managers and helps to reduce conflicts.

In one of its newest projects, the partnership will lead the educational component of a "Water Cooperation Facility" being formed by UNESCO to address water conflicts globally.

"I think this report to the U.N. will be quite helpful," Wolf said. "Leaders there used to talk about water wars, and now they are talking about water as an inducement to peace. We're making progress."

According to Wolf, the issues in Africa illustrate a counter-intuitive phenomenon often seen around the world - the contentious problems arising over water scarcity, quality and uses are so serious that they often lead groups or nations to cooperate and make agreements, and those understandings have usually survived even if wars later evolve over other issues.

"Water management is, by definition, conflict management," Wolf noted in the introduction to the new Africa report. "While the potential for paralyzing disputes is especially high, history shows that water can catalyze dialogue and cooperation, even between especially contentious riparians. Avoiding water conflict is vital. Conflict is expensive, disruptive, and interferes with efforts to relieve human suffering, reduce environmental degradation, and achieve economic growth."

But nowhere in the world, the experts said, are the challenges any greater than in Africa today.

Studies show that more than 600 lakes in Africa have shrunk dramatically over the past decades, drained by deforestation, pollution and farming. Dams, sewage and industrial pollution have huge impacts on fisheries. In 20 years countries such as Niger lost more than 80 percent of their freshwater wetlands.

Sub-Saharan Africa receives erratic rainfall, and huge sections of the continent may turn into desert. These water shortages are taking place in a region with the highest population growth rate in the world, and estimates are that 25 countries may have severe water shortages in the next 20 years. In the Okavango Basin of southern Africa, Botswana wants water for ecotourism - in direct conflict with industrial and drinking water demands in Namibia. Water-related disease kills huge numbers of people.

The best successes, the researchers say, exist in places with stable governments, treaties, a functioning economy and history of collaboration. More problems crop up with population growth, unilateral development projects, rapid environmental change and climate variability. And they also observed that issues which can sometimes be dealt with adequately at a national or regional level often degenerate to conflict or outright violence at the tribal or personal level.

"Much of Africa is behind the rest of the world in water management and conflict resolution," Wolf said. "As a result, people are suffering and dying. There are things we can do to help, and we hope this new study helps more people understand the serious issues here."