The Geopolitics Of Water Scarcity – 19.07.2020 Josep Borrell High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice President of the European Commission
Water is life. We can survive for days without eating, but not without drinking. Water is also a basic element necessary for the production of all types of food, whether plant or animal. This is why the question of access to fresh water has always been central to man, and therefore the source of numerous conflicts. However, these conflicts, closely related to climate change, economic development and demographic growth, today take on an increasingly alarming dimension: access to water has become one of the main geopolitical issues of our century.
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Today, the situation along the Nile River is particularly worrying. The immediate issue is the construction and filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. With an installed capacity of 6.45 gigawatts, it will be the largest dam in Africa and the seventh in the world. The challenge is to guarantee economic development for over 250 million people living in the Blue Nile basin. The works are currently nearing completion and filling of the tank will begin soon.
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During the filling process, the flow of the river will decrease downstream as the dam will hold back some of it. The flow of the river can be restored only after the dam is completely filled. However, in times of drought, the needs of downstream lands must still be balanced with the need to retain water for dam operation. But this must also be weighed against the potential opportunities arising from the construction of the dam, not only for Ethiopia, but also for its neighbours, in terms of water flow regulation, agricultural production and the provision of abundant electricity that can be sold and transmitted regionally.
After ten years, it is time to resolve the issue of the Renaissance Dam: the Horn of Africa is already facing many other challenges.
All these vital issues must be resolved through negotiations with the two downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt. Negotiations on these issues began in 2011, but have already failed. Ten years later, the time has come to address this issue: the Horn of Africa is already facing many other challenges.
The European Union has been occupied for several weeks because the countries involved – Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia – are all of strategic importance to us. We have been in frequent contact with all parties. From what we hear, a solution is possible, even if years of mistrust cannot be overcome overnight. It is possible, thanks to artistic imagination, political courage and the support of the international community, that this conflict can be turned into an opportunity for many people.
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As the current Chairperson of the African Union, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken the initiative to accelerate efforts to find a short-term solution to the problem of filling the Renaissance Dam and a long-term solution to this problem. In a few days it will host a summit of top leaders and I am very pleased that the European Union has been asked to be an observer in these talks. We expressed our strong support for the action taken by the President of the African Union, and the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia must provide him with an African solution to this problem.
The period of filling the dam must be aimed at the satisfaction of all. Post-filling operations require further discussions to reach water-sharing agreements, as occurs in all river basins. The spirit of cooperation among all should prevail, as required by international law. I am ready to coordinate with my colleagues in the international community to mobilize financial support if the region can present a predictable and agreed path to manage the river.
Unfortunately, the example of Nilo is by no means isolated. Although 71% of the planet’s surface is covered by seas and oceans, its water is salty. Fresh water, the only one suitable for human consumption and agriculture, is actually a scarce good. Seawater can also be desalinated and an increasing number of countries are using it, but this remains an expensive solution in terms of investment and energy.
According to the United Nations, the withdrawal of fresh water from lakes, rivers or aquifers for agriculture, industry or domestic consumption has doubled since the 1960s. Furthermore, according to the World Resources Institute, 17 countries, including Iran, India and Pakistan, home to a quarter of the world’s population, are already in a state of severe “water stress”, with more than 80% of their water resources Sweet. Withdrawal for human, agricultural or industrial consumption.
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In 2019, Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, went without water for weeks, while in 2018, residents of Cape Town, South Africa, narrowly escaped the same fate. The crisis does not exclude countries like the United States of America, as some states, like New Mexico, are also suffering from severe water stress. In 2017, Rome rationed water to conserve its resources. And I come from a country, Spain, where water management has also been fundamental for a long time: in 2008, the city of Barcelona had to import drinking water from France to meet the needs of its population.
The water situation is expected to further deteriorate in the future due to climate change, economic development and continued population growth.
According to the United Nations, the situation will further worsen in the future in many parts of the world due to climate change, economic development and continued population growth. This issue not only leads to difficult internal situations in many countries, including Europe, but also leads to international conflicts such as those currently affecting countries bordering the Nile River.
The issue of control of water resources is therefore at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the occupied territories. The management of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is also a source of difficulty between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, especially after Turkey’s construction of a giant dam, the Gunedogu Anatolian Projecsi (GAP), Southeastern Anatolia. In Asia, the management of the Mekong River is also a major source of tension between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors Laos and Cambodia.
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Unfortunately, there are every reason to fear that such conflicts will multiply in the future. As can be seen from the map above, Europe and its neighbors are directly concerned about the problem of water scarcity and the geopolitical tensions it can create.
The EU has already strengthened water management over the past decade, distributing more than €2.5 billion in 62 countries and providing access to clean water for more than 70 million people and sanitation for more than 24 million people. It also strengthened the implementation of the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Helsinki Water Convention, 1992).
However, it is certain that “water diplomacy” will play a more important role in the future of European foreign policy.
Josep Borrell’s blog about his activities and European foreign policy. Here you can also find selected interviews, editorials, speeches and videos. China’s Ministry of Water Resources announced on January 16 that Beijing has invested more than one trillion yuan ($148 billion) in water resource management in 2022, amounting to $44 billion. Percentage increase compared to the previous year. Elsewhere, Pakistan suggested that water management projects should become a priority for CPEC as Pakistan is expected to become a water-scarce country by 2025. A few weeks ago, an Iranian official confirmed that 270 cities and towns were suffering from severe water shortages, with water levels in dams dropping to very low levels.
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Factories in southwestern China were forced to suspend operations last summer after a record drought dried up some of the country’s rivers, including parts of the Yangtze. Hydroelectric power and transportation are also affected. Sichuan province is considered to be in a “dangerous situation” because it produces more than 80% of its energy from hydropower.
Pakistan is in a similar situation. The Indus River is the source of more than 17 gigawatts of hydroelectric power and provides water for the Indus Basin irrigation system, which supports more than 90% of the country’s agricultural production. Poor water management, rapid population growth, droughts and floods have created a truly difficult situation.
In Iran, a semi-arid climate and low rainfall over the past decade have played a role in the crisis, but persistent inefficient water management since the 1990s may be a bigger problem. After the 1979 revolution, the new regime developed a policy of national food self-sufficiency, which involved producing enough staple crops to meet the country’s needs instead of relying on imports. To this end, agricultural production became dependent on groundwater extraction, and the slowly replenishing aquifers were unable to keep up with the increasing number of users and water withdrawals.
These problems may not be new, but they are all getting worse. The fact that these three countries are geographically interconnected served as a wake-up call for others
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