Small Wars Journal

Water Tensions in Africa

Sat, 03/01/2014 - 9:23am

Water Tensions in Africa: Assisting our African Partners in Developing a Riverine Operations Capability

Henri Boré

Subsequent to colliding weather conditions, climate change and domestic political failure, the risk of conflicts for the control of and access to water is looming on the horizon across Africa. The main African river basins and watersheds[i] are already the centers of gravity of various intrastate and interstate tensions and disputes.   Supporting our key African landlocked partner nations in developing their own capabilities to secure the infrastructure and trade activities along their main river basins and watersheds could substantially leverage our overall influence.  Helping them create a national Riverine Operations capability would allow these partner nations to develop, reinforce or sustain greater domestic and regional security.

Climate Change, Drought, and Mushrooming Populations

Quarrels and political strain for control of or access to water are not uncommon along the Blue Nile in South Sudan, the Casamance River in Senegal and the Okavango basin in East Africa, just to name a few.  The trigger of these confrontations is twofold:  climate change, and its subsequent drought, and the rapidly growing population. 

Drought and climate change represent a deadly combination that has already undermined security and stability in many regions of Africa.  The 2011 drought in Somalia pushed millions of Somali refugees to Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya and in turn triggered a Kenyan military intervention into Somalia in November, 2011.  Along the southern shore of the Sahel region, more than 40 years of inevitable desertification have altered the landscape and the lifestyle of the people living in the northern territories of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and South Sudan.  Desertification has forced millions of farmers and nomadic communities toward a massive urban migration. The populations of urban centers like Dakar, Bamako, and Niamey have doubled in 20 years.

This massive urban migration in Africa coincides with a substantial increase in demographics.  In 2050, one out four inhabitants of our planet will be African.[ii]  Sixty percent will most likely be found in urban centers, 40 percent of which will be living in poverty in the giant shanty towns that have rapidly developed in the suburbs of almost each African capital city from Dakar to Johannesburg. 

Finally, the world will require 55 percent more food by 2030.  This will increase the demand for irrigation which already accounts for 70 per cent of the fresh water use by humans, the 2006 UN World Water Development Report stated.

Control of and Access to Water: The Road to Crisis

In this context of desertification, urban population increase and domestic political instability, the control of and access to water emerges as a key factor of crisis.  The basins and watersheds of the main African rivers have always played a critical role in history and geopolitics of Africa.  In the late 1800s, the Senegal, the Niger, the Congo and the Nile basins provided an effective avenue of approach to the European colonial expansion from West and North Africa towards Central Africa.

Throughout the 20th century, Ghana dammed the Volta River, Egypt the Nile, Senegal the Senegal River, and Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique did the same with the Zambezi River.  In many modern African urban centers, today’s life depends on the supply of water.  Inhabitants have become "hostage to hydrology" as the World Bank calls it.  Dakar is just one case in point. Repeated water shortages combined with food crisis have already triggered social unrest and street riots in 2010 and 2011. 

If oil remains critical to the stability of Sudan today, water may well be the country’s Achilles’ heel tomorrow.  Indeed, its new Merowe dam in the north above the Nile’s fourth cataract is intended to meet the strategic objective to irrigate acres of farmland in northern Sudan, while providing electricity to run the air conditioners in Khartoum. Merowe and its Nile sub-region has subsequently become a strategic center of gravity for the future economy and political stability of Sudan.   Further south, Lake Victoria became the center of a dispute between neighboring countries when the shrinking of its waters resulted in the emergence of a one-acre island called Migingo on the Uganda-Kenya border.  Another example of potential threat to stability can be found in Chad where the receding waters of Lake Chad resulted in the establishment of a de facto Nigerian colony extending 50 kilometers inside northern Cameroon.

In short, if water wars do not exist in Africa today, water conflicts certainly do, and climate change will make the problem much worse. The risk should not be overlooked even though some experts rightly argue thatthe level of conflict intensity does increase the closer you get to the level of the individual, and the further you go from the level of the state.” [iii]  The fact of the matter is that a dangerous path to potential intra and interstate conflict is widening along the line of African river basins and watersheds.  The sources of conflicts often lay within basins in which the upstream and the downstream riparian states have diverging interest, as seen in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  

Sustaining Security along the Main River Basins and Watersheds: A Key Opportunity for Cooperation for the U.S.

In many African regions, the centers of economic development are either on a river, a lake, a seafront or on watersheds.  Like those along the Volta River in Burkina Faso, the Ubangi River in Central African Republic (CAR) or the Chari River in Chad, these areas are in fact often critical to local domestic security and regional stability.  Supporting our African partner nations in developing their own capability to secure the infrastructure and trade activities along the river basins and watersheds could leverage our overall influence in Africa.

Different courses of action lay ahead to effectively assist our partner nations. A relevant option could involve helping landlocked countries develop their own riverine operations capability. This would allow countries such as South Sudan to develop, reinforce or sustain greater security along the river basins and watersheds regions that are critical to their economic development, the population migration and overall political stability.

To be successful, our African partners should not just duplicate the mission and organization of Western organizations dedicated to such capability.  In fact, assessing the current military capabilities of some of our key partner nations in Africa reveals that they would need to be first and foremost make up a modern light and mobile ground force combining some of the U.S Marine, Army and Special Forces tactical skills and structures. In that regard, for instance, Blue Nile river basin and watershed operations would become an essential mission assigned to a newly South Sudanese Riverine Corps, and the U.S. Marine Corps could play a critical role in helping the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) develop this type of tactical capability

End Notes

[i] Primarily the Senegal, Niger, Volta, Congo, Okavango, Zambezi and Nile river basins and watersheds.

[ii] In INED, Population&Societies, October, 2011,

[iii] In 2010, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa argued against the idea of wars over water in Africa in general and in particular in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).


About the Author(s)

Henri Boré is a retired French Marine Colonel and currently works as a Africa Desk Officer at Marine Corps University’s  Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL).