By Michael McShane
At the United Nations last week, stressing the importance of water to the development of nations, EastWest Institute President John Mroz implored global stakeholders to take decisive action: “Now, it’s no longer enough to name the ball, now we have to move the ball down the playing field.”
There is no other resource mankind depends more on than water; and while it certainly seems ubiquitous to the most fortunate of us, its scarcity is not only a reality but also a major cause for concern. According to a national intelligence report last year, by 2040, the world’s demand for water may outstrip its supply.
In an effort to confront and hopefully prevent looming water crises, the United Nations iscampaigning to prioritize water issues—promoting international and regional cooperation through increased dialogue and equitable partnerships.
The EastWest Institute has played a prominent role in spearheading recent initiatives, striving to further water cooperation. Whether organizing events in support of the International Year of Water Cooperation or bringing together experts and policymakers in Southwest Asia to help facilitate transboundary water management, EWI is moving the ball down the field.
Mobilizing the greater international community remains one of the biggest obstacles to tackling global water issues. In order to effectively address the critical water problems facing mankind, nation-states must summon the political will to responsibly cooperate and overcome the inherent tendency to act narrowly in their immediate self-interests.
Today, there are stark reminders highlighting the lack of political will and the limits to bilateral and multilateral cooperation. States continue to aggressively pursue greater access to water at the expense of others, reinforcing the threat of conflict over one of the world’s most coveted resources.
Recent hostilities pitting Egypt and Sudan against Ethiopia underscore the contentious nature of water-sharing between states and the fragility of regional agreements. Reports surfaced late last year that Egypt and Sudan were preparing contingency plans for a possible bombing campaign against a new hydro-electric dam being constructed in Ethiopia along the Nile River.
Since the turn of the century, Ethiopia and other Nile Basin countries have pushed for a new Nile-sharing agreement, which would replace colonial era deals that allocate 90% of the Nile’s water to Egypt and Sudan. Both downstream states, highly dependent on the Nile as their primary source of fresh water, Egypt and Sudan have been unwilling to signthe Entebbe Framework.
Ethiopia, a growing military power in the horn of Africa, has taken recourse to its own water needs by controversially deciding to build dams on the Nile. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi warned back in 2010:
“Some people in Egypt have old-fashioned ideas based on the assumption that the Nile water belongs to Egypt, and that Egypt has a right to decide who gets what, and that the upper Nile basin countries are unable to use the Nile water because they will be unstable and they will be poor…These circumstances have changed and changed forever…Ethiopia is still poor, but it is able to cover the necessary resources to build whatever infrastructure and dams it wants on the Nile water. The way forward is not for Egypt to try and stop the unstoppable. The way forward is to seek a win-win solution through diplomatic efforts.”
In Asia, water cooperation is finding its limitations as well. The continent’s most formidable power, China, has undertaken massive dam-building projects along transboundary rivers; the potential consequences of these actions are grave.
Brahma Chellaney’s recent op-ed, “China’s Hydro-Hegemony,” highlights Bejing’s unwillingness to enter into formal agreements with its riparian neighbors, as well as the water-related dangers stemming from China’s ability to unilaterally take action due to its regional strength:
“In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbors, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.
“Today, by building megadams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to re-engineer the flows of major rivers that are the lifeline of lower riparian states…Asia needs institutionalized water cooperation because it awaits a future made hotter and drier by climate and environmental change and resource depletion. The continent’s water challenges have been exacerbated by growing consumption, unsustainable irrigation practices, rapid industrialization, pollution and geopolitical shifts.”
Chellaney warns of the potential for water wars in Asia, as China’s neighbors have begun building dams of their own, often financed by China’s state-owned enterprises. He pessimistically concludes,
“Beijing already has significant financial, trade and political leverage over most of its neighbors. Now, by building an asymmetric control over cross-border flows, it is seeking to have its hand on Asia’s water tap. Given China’s unique riparian position and role, it will not be possible to transform the Asian water competition into cooperation without Beijing playing a leadership role to develop a rules-based system.”
As the world confronts its biggest challenge moving forward—mitigating the global risks associated with water—cooperation amongst self-interested states will not come easily.