Future wars could be fought over lakes, rivers

Thursday January 21 2010

Water is one of the most sought after natural resources in Africa. Many wars, especially among pastoralist communities, have been fought over it while global warming and reckless human activity have taken a heavy toll on the continent’s major lakes in the past decades.

A UNEP-produced Atlas of African Lakes shows the drastic depletion of the continent’s major water bodies by comparing and contrasting past satellite images with contemporary ones. Complicating matters further, some of the biggest natural lakes in Africa are usually spread across national borders, which means the responsibility of ensuring there is a sustainable usage of their waters is shared between nations.

But more often than not there is a sort of scramble, with the countries involved selfishly trying to outdo each other in siphoning the lacustrine resources without giving much thought to a common and sustainable operating policy. Where agreements are drawn they are rarely honoured.

The state of Lake Chad is probably the best illustration of this madness. Once Africa’s largest fresh water body supporting the livelihoods of about 30 million people in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger, the lake has shrunk by 90 per cent from 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s to less than 1,300 square kilometres today.

Reduced rainfall, increased irrigation, the southward march of the Sahara and heavy damming of Logone and Chari rivers, the two major sources of the lake, are cited as the main causes of this ecological catastrophe. There are occasional conflicts involving Nigerian fishermen on one side and Chadian and Cameroonian authorities on the other as the Nigerians venture outside their shallow waters for bigger catches.

This dying water mass has forced many of the 30 million people who live around it to abandon fishing for menial jobs or farming on the exposed lakebed using the scarce lake water or relying on erratic rainfall. Environmentalists warn that the lake will be a mere pond in two decades, prompting regional governments to think of channelling water from Oubangi River in the Central Africa Republic.


Lake Turkana dying

Thousands of miles away from the dying Lake Chad on the Kenya-Ethiopian border is Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, which according to environmentalists is also on its deathbed. With about 500,000 people in both countries depending on the lake directly or indirectly for their survival, activists are bitterly opposed to Ethiopia’s plan to build the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric dam, the second largest in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Situated 600 kilometres up the Omo River valley, the dam is a monolithic piece of architecture, with its wall soaring 240 metres high and holding back a 150 kilometre-long reservoir. Critics are complaining that the $2 billion (Sh150 billion) power project will interfere with the flow of the river that provides 80 per cent of water to Lake Turkana.

Although authorities on both sides of the border say the dam will only moderate but not change the total amount of water flowing into the lake, an independent collection of European, American and East African scientists under the African Resources Working Group (ARWG) insist the dam will have a catastrophic impact on Lake Turkana and its people since it will retain 11 billion cubic metres of water, enough to reduce the level of the lake by as much as four or five metres.

Gradually shrinking

“It is unclear how much the Gibe III will affect Lake Turkana,” says Paul Ikmat, a hydrologist. Nobody has really done the studies. But as a hydrologist I find it hard to see how it couldn’t have a significant effect. If the level falls any further, there is real danger that the water will become too alkaline to drink and damage the delicate fisheries.”

Over the years the lake has been gradually shrinking and becoming increasingly salty and highly alkaline, its water barely drinkable. Funded partly by European Investment Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB), the Gibe III hydro-plant is expected to generate 1,870 megawatts of electricity in 2013, a fact that is bound to benefit Kenya and other electricity-hungry neighbouring countries.

Ethiopia says that besides power generation the dam will also reduce River Omo’s devastating floods that killed at least 360 people and thousands of livestock in 2006. Activists have accused the government of Kenya of remaining indifferent to the issue since it stands to benefit from the surplus power to be generated from the dam.

Kenya is bound to benefit from the more than 500 megawatts earmarked for export from Gibe III to neighbouring countries. This will help meet her electricity demand that is expected to rise to 2,000 megawatts in the next five years, double the present installed capacity.

Against a backdrop of intensive protests from various lobby groups, a delegation of Kenya government officials led by the Director of Water Services, John Nyoro, gave the project a clean bill of health after a two-week fact-finding mission in Ethiopia in June 2009. The receding of the lake was due to unrelated upstream development, they said.

“This dam does not consume water. The water passing through it will only be used for the purpose of turning the turbines after which it will be released downstream,” said Nyoro. To gain more say in the management of River Omo, Kenya has been pushing for a Co-operative Framework Agreement (CFA) with Ethiopia.

The CFA is supposed to provide the legal framework for the establishment of a Basin Commission that will act as a clearing authority for any developments in Lake Turkana basin, besides compelling Ethiopia to consult Kenya in case of any future changes in water use of Gibe III Dam. However, Ethiopia has adamantly turned down this proposal saying its own monitoring system is sound.

Lake Victoria is perhaps, owing to the fact that it’s the source of the Nile, Africa’s most politically significant water mass. With a surface area of about 69,000 kilometres square and sustaining the livelihoods of an estimated 25 million people in its immediate surroundings, the massive lake is not only the largest fresh water body in Africa but also supports the largest inland fishery on the continent.

But environmental challenges have beset the lake in recent years, prompting concerted efforts by various organisations aimed at conservation and encouraging sustainable utilisation of this vital reservoir.

The Lake Victoria Environmental Management Project (LVEMP) is the main conservation body established by Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in partnership with Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to rehabilitate the lake’s ecosystem in a manner that would be beneficial for the riparian communities and the national economies.

The major challenges facing the lake have been water hyacinth, over-fishing, pollution through industrial and urban effluence and the receding shoreline. Sustainability of fisheries is also threatened by over-fishing, pollution and the ecological instability resulting from the introduction of the Nile Perch.

Brought in 50 years ago and currently accounting for 60 per cent of the lake’s commercial fish catch, the Nile Perch preys on other fish, which has reduced the lake to what researchers have termed a “three-species fishery” consisting of dagaa, tilapia and the perch. The Lake Victoria Fisheries Organisation (LVFO) was established by the three countries sharing the lake and is supported by the European Union to coordinate and manage fisheries resources in the lake.

According to environmentalists, the lake’s shallowness, limited river inflow and large surface area relative to its volume make it vulnerable to the effects of climatic change. By 2006, the water levels in Lake Victoria reached an 80-year low, for which hydrologists squarely blamed Uganda for releasing more water to the Nalubaale and Kiira hydropower dams than allowed by the ‘Agreed Curve’ treaty between that country and Egypt.

But regional and international pressure forced Uganda to reduce the inflow at the two dams in March 2006. Being the source of the Nile, a river that supports millions of livelihoods downstream, Lake Victoria has been a source of controversy between Egypt, Sudan and East African countries for a long time regarding treaties that were signed during the colonial period.

The Nile Water Agreement of 1929 was signed by Britain on behalf of its East African colonies. It not only forbids countries surrounding the lake from having full use of its waters, but also grants Egypt the right to police the entire length of the Nile, including Lake Victoria, to ensure that water is not diverted to the riparian countries in a manner that will affect the river’s volume downstream.

The second treaty in 1956 granted Egypt and Sudan a combined share of 74 billion cubic metres of the Nile waters, technically giving the two nations a near monopoly of the 6,700 kilometre-long river. An article published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2004 claimed that the international community and donors are reluctant to question the validity of the colonial treaties for fear of upsetting Egypt, a key ally of the United States.

However, meeting in Kinshasa early last year the five East African Community member states renewed their quest for equal access to the Nile basin waters by endorsing the River Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement, subsequently trashing the discriminative colonial treaties.

Other efforts by upstream nations to reclaim their rights to the expansive water system have been through Nile Basin Initiative, a group comprising water ministries from the 10 Nile River riparian countries. Formed in 1999, the Initiative is yet to formalise a comprehensive agreement for allocating the Nile resources. But at the moment all these efforts remain more on paper than practise, with Egypt threatening to declare war on any nation that flouts the two colonial treaties.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project