And SADC is not immune to the problem.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 Report, about 1.2 billion people are living in areas of water scarcity, while 47 percent of the global population will live in areas of high water stress by 2030.
It is statistics such as these that have analysts worrying that future wars will be fought over blue gold, as thirsty people, opportunistic politicians and powerful corporations battle for dwindling resources.
Last week an official in Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Henrie Manford Njiloma, warned that rising populations and industrial development in SADC were resulting in increased water demand and could cause political instability if not managed well.
In particular reference to Malawi, he said: “Despite enjoying political stability internally and peaceful coexistence with neighbours, subtle issues in the Malawian water sector affecting both internal and external political stability exist and hence as seen elsewhere in the world could be a cause for future conflicts.”
Speaking at a climate change symposium, Njiloma noted that water-related issues had become some of the most contentious, causing social suffering, strife and misery among people in some parts of the world.
“Countries have fought contesting control of shared waters,” he said, pointing out that Africa south of the Sahara was likely to experience absolute water shortages by 2025.
He cited Malawi’s recent diplomatic dispute with Mozambique over the ambitious Nsanje Inland Port on Shire River.
The river flows into neighbouring Mozambique.
There was a stand-off in the 1980s between Malawi and Tanzania due to flooding of Lake Malawi.
Malawi was accused of blocking the Shire River at Liwonde Barrage.
Njiloma urged co-ordinated approaches among SADC states to avoid water disputes.
Water Strife in SADC
Jo-Ansie van Wyk of the University of South Africa has written that, “It is not insignificant that the English words ‘rival’ and ‘river’ are derived from the same Latin word, rivalis, ‘one who uses the same stream’. Enmities arising from access to and the use of water are ancient and run deep.
“Understanding threats in the 21st century requires a broader and more sophisticated approach.
“The end of the Cold War has contributed to the rise of so-called new security issues.
“The notion of human security suggests that security can be viewed as emerging from conditions of daily life ‑ food, shelter, health, public safety, employment and water rather than downward from a state’s foreign relations and military strength.
“The water situation in Southern Africa is no exception in this regard.”
Van Wyk adds that water poses three challenges to security policy-makers in SADC.
“These relate to water shortage and availability; water supply and quality; and rapid population growth, cross-border migration and urbanisation.”
There is also the problem of water quality.
Van Wyk goes on to say, “Southern Africa’s water inventory is characterised by several contradictions.
“South Africa is home to one-third of the region’s population. While South Africa accounts for eighty percent of Southern Africa’s water use, only 10 percent of the total water resource is available in South Africa.
“The overall picture that defines the region’s water profile is that of scarcity.
“At least three of the region’s states (Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) are acutely short of water.
“Resource geopolitics in Southern Africa have long been neglected. However, water is now recognised as a fundamental political weapon in the region. Despite the ‘peace dividend’ in the region, water will increasingly shape the international relations and security arrangements of Southern Africa.
“The relative wealth in Southern Africa is concentrated in the water poor south of the region.
“Poverty is worst in the water-poor north of the region.”
The African Picture
It is not just SADC that is at risk.
The amount of water available per person in Africa is declining and only 26 of the continent’s 53 countries are currently on track to reduce by half the number of people without sustainable access to clean drinking water by 2015, according to a survey by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Furthermore, only five countries in Africa are expected to attain the target of reducing by half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic sanitation by 2015, the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals.
The Africa Water Atlas, compiled by UNEP at the request of the African Ministers’ Council on Water, maps out solutions and success stories on water resources management from across the continent.
Among the success stories are how rainwater conservation has improved food security in drought-prone regions and how irrigation projects in Kenya, Senegal and Sudan are helping improve food security.
However, some of the disturbing scenes include eroded soil and agricultural run-off in Uganda, pollution from oil spills in Nigeria, and a 3-km segment of the Nile Delta lost to erosion.
“The dramatic changes sweeping Africa, linked with both positive and negative management of this continent’s vital water resources, is graphically brought home in this Atlas,” said Achim Steiner, the UNEP executive director.
“From the dams triggering erosion on the Nile Delta to pollution in the Niger River Basin, the way infrastructure development or uncontrolled oil spills are impacting the lives and livelihoods of people are all brought into sharp relief.
“But so too are the many attempts towards sustainable management of freshwaters – for example, the controlled releases from dams on Chad’s Logone River that are restoring in part the natural flooding cycles leading to the recovery of economically important ecosystems.”
An Age of Water Wars
The situation is, indeed, grim.
Of all the water on earth, 97 percent is salt water and the remaining three percent is fresh.
Of this, less than one percent of the planet’s potable water readily accessible.
Water has already been linked to war in the modern era, most recently in Libya.
Before his demise, Muammar Gaddafi accused France of pushing for his ouster to not only control Libya’s oil wealth, but also to control water in the desert nation.
Gaddafi constructed the Great Man-Made River at a cost of US$33 billion, drawing water from beneath the Sahara Desert and making it available to parched areas, which can now be cultivated.
French company bids for this project were rejected and they are now being re-considered since Gaddafi’s murder.
French global mega-water companies like Suez, Ondeo and Saur, control more than 45 percent of the world’s water market and are rushing to privatise water, which is a US$400 billion business.
And there are reports that America’s Central Intelligence Agency last year commissioned a report on the likelihood of what it called “hydrological warfare”.
Before he was overthrown and the murdered, Gaddafi also alleged that a US-led international banking consortium wanted to control this most valuable asset as a lever in any future wars in the Arab lands.
The Nile is another potential flash point.
In 1989, former Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, threatened to send demolition squads to a Nile Dam project in Ethiopia.
The current tenuous political situation in Egypt means that “if the army wants to divert attention away from criticism it would probably do something against Ethiopia,” writes Adel Darwish, who has documented military conflicts in the Arab world.
He says the Egyptian army is still on standby for such a deployment.
On the Nile, as with basins in SADC, co-operation now would benefit all neighbours and leave no room for future conflict.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Anton Earle, director of the Stockholm International Water Institute think-tank, said, “If you had an agreement between the parties, there would be more water in the system.”
The likelihood of outright war is low, he added, but there is still “a lot of conflict” which “prevents joint infrastructure projects from going ahead”.
Ignacio Saiz, director of Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a social justice group said demographic changes were exerting pressure on water availability.
“Water scarcity is an issue exacerbated by demographic pressures, climate change and pollution.
“The world’s water supplies should guarantee every member of the population to cover their personal and domestic needs. Fundamentally, these are issues of poverty and inequality, man-made problems.”
However, Adel Darwish, who co-authored “Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East”, says modern history has already seen at least two water wars. “I have (former Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon speaking on record saying the reason for going to war (against Arab armies) in 1967 was for water.” Some analysts believe Israel continues to occupy the Golan heights, seized from Syria in 1967, for water control.
Other conflicts include the war between Senegal and Mauritania in 1989 over grazing rights on the River Senegal.
“My experience in the first gulf war (when Iraq invaded Kuwait) is that natural resources are always at the heart of tribal conflicts,” Darwish told Al Jazeera.
“The world Sharia (Islamic law) has its linguistic origins in ‘water from a well’.”