To avoid water conflicts, Africa must drop colonial card

Thursday, April 15th, 2021 00:00 |

Harrison Mwilima

I wish to remind African countries to stop taking advantage of colonial-era water agreements to benefit from shared water resources.

Instead, African countries need to pursue united strategies to combat looming water crises across the continent.

When colonial powers created the artificial borders of African countries, inland water bodies such as lakes and rivers were often used to mark the boundaries.

In cases where a water source was shared by different countries, the colonial powers drew up own agreements on how they would be used — without the consent of the people who were living in the territories. 

When the wave of independence swept the continent, countries decided to retain the inherited borders.

However, today, this means interstate tensions often arise whenever resources are discovered or become scarce in the shared water bodies.

In such situations, the water agreements drawn up by the former colonial powers are used by some countries for own gains.

Africa’s longest river, the Nile — which flows through 11 countries — is the source of the most recent water tensions.

Egypt and Sudan want to preserve colonial agreements drawn up by Britain that allocate the Nile’s water to the two countries and grant Egypt power to veto river projects.

However, in 2011 Ethiopia announced plans to construct a massive hydroelectric dam.

When Ethiopia announced in 2020 that it had started filling the dam with water from the Nile, Egypt cried foul, arguing that Ethiopia needed to comply with the colonial water treaties.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, maintains it is entitled to the shared use of the Nile’s water. 

Colonial water agreements have also led to a dispute over a shared lake between Tanzania and Malawi — known as Lake Nyasa to Tanzanians and Lake Malawi to Malawians.

The discovery of oil and gas in 2011 brought an Anglo-German treaty signed in 1890 back to the fore.

The treaty allows Malawi — which, back then, was a British protectorate under the name of Nyasaland — exclusive rights to use of the lake.

However, Tanzania claims the lake should be a shared resource in accordance with international law.

These are just examples showing how easily colonial-era treaties can spark water conflicts between African countries.

But while both sides bicker over who is entitled to what, it’s crucial to remember that many counties are at high risk of water scarcity.

Climate change has left the continent even more vulnerable to droughts and floods.

One in three people across Africa doesn’t have sufficient access to water supplies.

To tackle the challenges, African governments need think beyond the need of individual states.

Playing the colonial card to secure access to water resources does nothing to mitigate the water challenges they are facing — and will continue to face.

What we need now is the sustainable management of water resources, so that water needs of today’s population can be met, without jeopardising water security for future generations.— The writer is correspondent for DW’s Kiswahili service

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