In western Ethiopia, remote in the highlands of Benishangul Gumuz, one can quickly imagine the effects of climate change. Here, about 10 kilometers from the border with Sudan, Africa’s largest dam is being built. The sheet piling extends over 1,800 meters and will soon be 145 meters high. The reservoir must contain 74 billion cubic meters of water. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been fighting over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam on the Nile for years.
While Ethiopia wants to generate electricity, the neighbors fear for their water supply. Numerous rounds of negotiations, led by the African Union and the UN, were unsuccessful. This is tricky. Years ago Egypt threatened to bomb the dam – and in July Ethiopia dammed water for the first time.
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What is happening in the Horn of Africa is not an isolated incident. There have also been disputes or even wars over water in the past. But climate change is making water scarce. The number of heat waves and drought waves is increasing rapidly. In some regions in Africa and Asia, where people are already struggling with the scarcity of their water supplies, radical changes are imminent. According to the United Nations, 2.2 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water and even 4.2 billion people do not have access to clean sanitation. Fresh water supply is likely to be one of the most difficult challenges of the 21st century.
The threat of water scarcity does not only create humanitarian problems. Competition for scarce water will increase, according to a study by the Joint Research Center, a think tank of the European Union. Water management can exacerbate regional tensions, cause instability and social unrest. After all, 70 percent of the water required goes to food production. Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s UN ambassador and long-term foreign policy adviser to the Chancellor, recently called climate change the “overarching” problem, a risk to the world. Will we soon face wars over this vital resource?
The warnings of the experts
Johann Rockström has been researching global water resources and their management for 25 years. Since September 2018 he is one of the directors of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Global water scarcity will increase significantly in the coming decades,” he says. The world’s population is growing rapidly, as is the need for water.
By 2050, half of the world’s population will suffer from “water stress”. And: “If you add climate change, the water scarcity will become even more drastic.” In regions such as southern Africa, the Middle East, Central America and southern Europe, it could rain 20 to 25 percent less with a temperature increase of two degrees. “It will be difficult to maintain crop yields and food insecurity will increase.”
Johan Rockström has been one of the directors of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research since September 2018. Photo: PIK / Kliese de Souza
“More and more politicians will have to think about the security aspects of the consequences of climate change,” says Rockström. There are no indications that water scarcity alone leads to armed conflict. But: “It is uncertain which conflicts and tensions will arise around tensions in the future.” For example, you might think that the start of the Arab Spring was preceded by five extremely dry years – especially in Syria, where perhaps the driest years have been recorded since Irrigated agriculture was introduced there 8,000 years ago. But there is also the Sahel region or the Himalayas. If the ice melts there, it will affect the water supply for the entire region.
The bottlenecks on the Euphrates and Tigris
A look at Turkey shows how close to the problem is. Many thousands of years of history could not harm Hasankeyf. The city in Southeastern Anatolia is one of the oldest settlements in Mesopotamia, now sinking into a dam. Turkey has been damming the Tigris since last autumn with the gigantic Ilisu dam. Thousands of people were resettled and hundreds of villages were victims. It is just one of the many dams the country has completed on the Euphrates and Tigris in the past decade. Downstream, in Iraq, that causes problems. Meanwhile, after protests from Baghdad, Ankara had stopped filling the reservoir and allowed a minimal amount of water to flow through it.
Hasankeyf, a city with a long history, sinks here in 2010. Photo: AFP / Bulent Kilic
The dams in Anatolia are also causing problems in Syria. The last time the Euphrates water became scarce there in a heat wave as it was dammed upstream at the dams – in Turkey, where the river rises. Further south, where the water is dammed at Syria’s Tischrin Dam, the second largest in the country, only a fraction of the electricity was produced. Many people in the region live from agriculture and fishing.
The attitude of the federal government
The federal government has long recognized the potential of climate-related conflict. “Climate change is no longer just an ecological challenge for humanity,” warned Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (SPD) in a UN debate last year. “It is increasingly a matter of war and peace.” One thing is clear: the federal government wants to draw attention to climate change and its security aspects. And if it were up to Maas, the Security Council would change from a crisis response body into a crisis prevention body – it simply takes a lot more.
The political effects of climate change have been a recurring topic in the UN Security Council since 2007. Several resolutions were passed in 2017, for example on the security situation in the Lake Chad basin, addressing the negative impacts of climate change on the stability of the region, including water scarcity, drought, desertification, land degradation and food insecurity. When the federal government chaired the commission in July 2020, it backfired with a resolution already worked out. It should create a mechanism to identify potential armed conflicts due to climate change at an early stage. It failed due to resistance from the US.
The conflicts in the Sahel
Two Turkana boys run across dry ground near their village of Gakong, Kenya Photo: dpa / Stephen Morrison
The problems are clear. For example in the Sahel zone. In Nigeria, a country of nearly 200 million inhabitants and a steadily growing population, nomads and farmers are already waging bloody battles for pastures and arable land. Climate change is also intensifying the interaction between natural disasters and diseases in neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon. But whether it is in the Sahel, in the Horn of Africa or in the ‘arid corridor of Central America, that water scarcity will increase the risk of conflict is clear to Gernot Laganda, the head of the climate and disaster prevention department in the United States. UN World Food Program (WFP).
“Conflict, however charged, cannot be explained by climatological factors alone. Political, economic or social tensions are always there and play an important role, ”he says.
WFP graphics show how protests and riots, violence against civilians or armed conflict take place when there is a lack of food or rain. The origin of these conflicts runs like a thread through the Sahel zone, through countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Nigeria. In some areas, including the Sahel region, climate models predict an average increase in rainfall. But when it occurs less frequently, but when extremely heavy rain falls, it increases erosion, crop failures and the loss of infrastructure due to flooding, Laganda said.
“We see these patterns on all continents.” He also says, “You can of course define the fight against water scarcity as a common goal that can avert political conflict at the local level.” The solutions to such problems are regional, cross-border approaches, which attempt to make the development of such river systems more sustainable.
Men work in a field near Maradi / Niger Photo: dpa / Carola Frentzen
The possibilities of diplomacy
A look at Ethiopia shows how difficult an agreement can be. Work on the dam has been in progress since 2011 and has always been controversial. Many years passed without an agreement being reached. While Addis Ababa has never left any doubts about starting damming the river, even without an agreement, Egypt and Sudan are demanding an agreement.
A further review shows that mediation can work. In 1951, at the insistence of the World Bank, India and Pakistan began negotiations on the use of Indus water, a distribution conflict dating back to colonial times. It was not until 1960 that the warring nuclear powers concluded a treaty that, despite all the tensions, continues to this day. It regulates the use of electricity and its tributaries, the exchange of information and cooperation mechanisms.
A committee of both states settles differences – it’s one of the most robust resource agreements worldwide. “Diplomacy around water will become much more important,” said Rockström. “The usable water is limited. Water management thus becomes crucial. ”