Accelerating water wars

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 18 Jul 2023

Conflict over water in the Fertile Crescent and East Africa due to dam construction and climate change is harming livelihoods, increasing food insecurity, and fuelling international tensions, writes Haitham Nouri

Accelerating water wars
(photo: AFP)


Wars in East Africa...


Dam projects in Ethiopia are compromising the lives and livelihoods of the Kenyan people


The declining levels of Lake Turkana in Kenya have been a cause for concern in recent years, with the operations of the Ethiopian Gibe III Dam being a significant factor.

The Ethiopian government is also planning to build two more dams, Gibe IV and Gibe V, which could exacerbate the situation further.

Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world, and around 300,000 people depend on it for water, livestock, and fishing. The lake receives 90 per cent of its water from the Omo River and is located between Kenya, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, with the majority of its area located in Kenya.

The decreasing water levels have resulted in the lake becoming saltier, rendering it unsuitable for drinking, livestock, or fish. In 2015, the level stood at 365 metres, but it decreased to 363 the following year after the filling of the third reservoir of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia.

This holds around 15 billion cubic metres of water, reaches a height of 243 metres, and generates 1.9 Megawatts of energy.

The Friends of Lake Turkana, a Kenyan civil society organisation concerned with the defence of the lake, fears that the declining water levels may worsen the livelihoods of those reliant on it, particularly during the frequent droughts that are affecting East Africa and the Horn of Africa region.

The Omo River originates from the south of the Ethiopian Plateau, from which several rivers flow in various directions. It flows through the Ethiopian southern nationalities region, where the local tribes live very differently to those in the mountainous north of the country, such as in the Tigray, Amhara, and Oromo regions.

Until recently, they predominantly practised pre-colonial African religions, but have since undergone a significant shift in religious affiliation, with the majority now adhering to Pentecostal Protestant Christianity.

The Omo River Valley is home to one of Ethiopia’s largest agricultural projects, with a focus on coffee cultivation, and this has recently expanded to include the cultivation and processing of sugarcane using the waters of the Gibe III Dam reservoir.

According to Ethiopian figures, Addis Ababa plans to cultivate approximately 375,000 hectares (around a million acres) of sugarcane. However, this is a notoriously water-intensive crop and is among the most water-consuming.

Despite the large-scale agricultural projects and electricity generated by the Gibe III Dam, farmers in the Omo Basin may not reap the benefits of these developments.

An investigation conducted jointly by the US Agency for International Development and the UK Department for International Development in 2012 revealed that “gross violations of human rights had taken place” during the development projects.

According to research conducted by the Oakland Institute in California entitled “Development Results in Starvation and Death in the Lower Omo Valley, Ethiopia,” the marginalisation of the population by expulsion from their land as a result of the projects has led to the loss of sources of livelihood and death due to starvation.

“Ethiopian development is paid for by the poorest social groups,” the research said.

The issue of poverty is intertwined with other factors including ethnic, regional, religious, and linguistic differences. These create a divide between the poorer groups and the ruling Amhara, causing the latter to lose sympathy from the majority of the northern population, including the Tigray and Oromo.

Starvation in the Omo River Valley is also reminiscent of the atrocities committed by the Addis Ababa government during the Tigray War in the north of the country.

During the conflict, the government besieged the region, preventing its residents from accessing money, medicine, and food. Ethiopian soldiers carried out campaigns against women, including rape, which resulted in the separation of thousands of women from their children.

Omar Al-Hassan, a professor of Amharic at the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies in Khartoum, said that “the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has become proficient in starving dissidents and collectively punishing them.”

Ethiopia is currently grappling with civil conflicts on multiple fronts, including ongoing mass killings in Tigray despite the signing of a peace agreement almost a year ago, according to international human-rights organisations.

Tensions between Ahmed’s government and his former allies from the Amhara have reached a critical point, with the latter rejecting the government’s proposal to merge their militias into the national army.

The situation between the Addis Ababa government and the Oromo is also tense, despite being calmer than in other regions.

There are also long-standing conflicts with Muslim ethnic groups in Somalia in the south, Benishangul in the far west near the Sudanese border, and the Afar, who border Djibouti and Eritrea.

In the Gambella and Omo Basin regions in the south and southwest, there is a rebellion that has the potential to escalate if the Addis Ababa government fails to address its underlying causes.


KENYAN DROUGHT: The inhabitants of lakeside communities in Kenya have been forced to migrate due to drought and the reduced water flow into Lake Turkana resulting from lower levels of the Omo River.

The filling of the Gibe III Dam reservoir has reduced the flow of water in the Omo River by half since its operations began in 2015. Even after the reservoir is filled, much of the water from the river will be diverted for the irrigation of sugarcane fields owned by large companies, rather than being made available for small-scale farmers.

The situation is particularly alarming given that Lake Turkana is located in a desert region, where the surface evaporation rate is already high. The problem has been exacerbated by recent droughts that have affected countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa region, further reducing the lake’s water levels and threatening the livelihoods of local communities.

The flow of water from the Omo River has historically compensated for surface evaporation in Lake Turkana, and at times even increased its water levels to maintain a healthy balance. However, the reduction in the Omo River water flow, coupled with increased surface evaporation due to drought, threatens to accelerate the salination of the lake and lower its water levels, making it increasingly unfit to support life.

“People are moving to Kenya’s already overcrowded cities, turning them into ticking timebombs that may explode at any time,” Al-Hassan said. Droughts, water scarcity, and environmental degradation resulting from climate change and neighbouring countries’ water usage have led to significant security challenges for many developing nations, including Kenya.

According to Al-Hassan, the crime rate in Kenya is high compared to other African countries, despite its not experiencing military coups, major famines, or civil wars. However, the country has witnessed frequent tribal unrest, which has increased in recent years.

Tribal clashes were particularly pronounced during the 2008-2009 presidential elections in Kenya, and they were repeated in 2012 and 2019. The elections have become occasions for the settling of tribal and ethnic scores, with electoral politics exacerbating existing tensions.

Research has highlighted that climate change has created additional problems and fuelled existing hatreds, leading to further conflicts and clashes.

Sharing the water of the Omo River more fairly is a possible solution to the conflicts arising from the Gibe Dam and Ethiopia’s water policies.

Al-Hassan said that Ethiopia’s neighbours have been relatively passive in opposing its dam projects, with only Egypt declaring its outright opposition. Djibouti, Kenya, South Sudan, and Somalia have not been able to take a firm stance.

The Ethiopian government’s argument for its dam projects and increasingly irrigated agriculture is to generate hydroelectric power and improve the lives of its growing population.

But issues of justice and fairness must be considered as well, Al-Hassan commented, as all the countries in the region are experiencing population growth and have the right to access water resources.


and the Fertile Crescent


Water has become a political weapon in the Fertile Crescent, raising tensions between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers




Many Iraqis today fear their rivers are drying up, while many Syrians see the threat of famine looming in the northeastern region of the country. This dire situation has emerged due to Turkey’s construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, climate change, and the region’s elevated temperatures and low rainfall.

Since the 1960s, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have experienced both cooperation and conflict over the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which are considered by many to be the origin of agriculture and the cradle of civilisation in the region.

But despite this legacy, Iraq is experiencing a noticeable decrease in agricultural production, while northeastern Syria is facing alarming levels of food insecurity, according to water and environmental expert Mohamed Khair Al-Anwar.

The threat of drought and food insecurity has the potential to trigger a regional war, particularly with projected population increases in Iraq expected to reach 53 million by 2025 and over 70 million by mid-century. Meanwhile, Turkey is projected to have a population of 78 million by 2025 and Syria 32 million in the same year.

Mesopotamia has been the home of civilisations since the dawn of history. Thousands of years ago, civilisations in the south of what is now Iraq relied entirely on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, while warrior tribes relied on rainfall for water at the sources of the two rivers in the Kurdish mountains.

In Turkey, the ancient Hittite civilisation was based on rainfall on the Anatolian Plateau, while the ancient Levantine civilisations were built around small rivers, rainfall, and desert oases.

This history created a situation in which Iraq was the main user of the two rivers for thousands of years. However, this exclusivity came with its own challenges, as Iraq today depends entirely on the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which originate in Turkey.

Some 90 per cent of the water in the Euphrates comes from Turkey, while Syria contributes 10 per cent. Iraq contributes 51 per cent of the water in the Tigris, while Turkey and Iran provide 40 per cent and nine per cent, respectively.

Before 1990, Iraq’s share of this water amounted to roughly 100 billion cubic metres, which led to an agricultural renaissance and the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian farmers to work in the country.

However, the country’s irrigation system failed to develop, and old agricultural and water practices persisted, providing Turkey with a pretext for negotiations between the two countries on water use.

Iraq’s water share has dramatically decreased to around 30 billion cubic metres today, mainly due to the construction of Turkish dams.

However, even if the dams had not been built, Iraq would still face water scarcity due to the low levels of rainfall at the sources of the two rivers in Kurdistan. But it was the construction of the Atatürk Dam system in Turkey that caused the amount of water available in Baghdad to reach critically low levels today.

Following the formation of today’s Middle Eastern countries after World War I, the focus shifted towards agriculture based on artificial irrigation from canals drawing water from reservoirs.

Significant differences over water did not arise until the 1960s when the countries of the region attempted to establish large-scale development projects.

The construction of the Turkish Keban Dam and the Syrian Tabqa Dam in 1975 almost led to war between the two countries, with Saudi Arabia intervening to prevent hostilities. In the same year, Iraq and Syria also clashed briefly over the filling of the Syrian Tabqa and Iraqi Habbaniyah Dams.

The three countries engaged in separate rounds of negotiations to share the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The first round took place in Baghdad in 1965, but failed due to Turkey’s insistence that the negotiations include sharing the water of the Tigris River considered as a single basin.

There is still no binding agreement on the sharing of the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers today, and Turkey has exploited this to construct 20 large dams at the headwaters of the two rivers in Turkish Kurdistan.

The term “water war” refers to “the use of water as a weapon to achieve political goals that may not have a direct relationship to the river in question and its development,” according to Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Egypt’s minister of irrigation from 1996 to 2008, in his book Water Wars published by Al-Ahram.

Unfortunately, Turkey has practised water wars under this definition for decades.

In 1987, Ankara and Damascus signed an agreement that granted Syria a share of 500 cubic metres per second of water in exchange for stopping its support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), classified as a terrorist organisation by the Turkish government due to its separatist tendencies.

Turkey also cut off water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. In 1997, Turkey was one of three countries to reject the UN Watercourses Convention, which includes the principle of “doing no harm” to others.

Al-Anwar said that “Turkey deals with the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as if it owns them. During the Cold War, Turkey’s membership of NATO and Syria and Iraq’s alignment with the former Soviet Union were sources of tension between these countries. Additionally, Ankara has always been concerned about Kurdish separatist movements in the region.”

Iraq today is one of the countries most affected by climate change, said Ali Al-Khalisi, a professor of geography in Baghdad.

He said that the current problems “start with climate change that affects the poor, followed by neoliberal policies that affect the state’s duties to its citizens, and finally lead to the proliferation of weapons in climate-stricken areas or the easy access to them.”

Iraq has been affected by this “triad of death” since it has been severely affected by climate change, saw the state collapse in 2003 following the Anglo-American occupation, and the spread of weapons from Iraqi army stores after the fall of late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Al-Khalisi said.

“There is a relationship between the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and climate change, as IS was established in northwestern Iraq by Sunni tribes affected by it,” he added.

“The conflicts in Iraq and Syria cannot be attributed solely to Sunni frustration resulting from a loss of power to the Shias. The drought that has affected Syria for years in the agricultural areas on the Euphrates bordering Iraq also contributed to the rise of IS.”

“While the importance of political factors and external interference cannot be denied, the absence of state aid and the availability of weapons were essential in fuelling the conflicts,” Al-Khalisi said.

“Turkey’s policy of draining Iraq to force it to export its oil to Europe through Turkey has further complicated the situation. Turkey’s confiscation of the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, despite its lack of need for that water, has been a major cause of the deterioration of the situation in Iraq and Syria,” he concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


Search Keywords:
Short link: