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Water Resource Exploitation in the Arid Lands as an Global Political Problem Essay

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Updated: Aug 31st, 2021

Arid and semi-arid lands refer to those areas which receive too low or too unreliable rainfall for cropping or sown pastures. The land and climate of arid and semi-arid areas are comparable in different parts of the world, but socio-economic factors vary.

Different countries have over the years employed different strategies for development, extension, and management in the drylands. All of these strategies require the utilization of water resources which include lakes and rivers. These water sources are normally shared by more than one country considering the fact that rivers, lakes, and seas are normally used as boundaries between different countries.

Therefore, this has not escaped international conflicts on the utilization of the resource. This has therefore led to many discussions where the questions like who should exercise control have been raised and to what level each country should utilize the resource.

It is a fact that freshwater is a scarce resource in many regions of the world. Despite that, it is vital for human existence and for economic development. Its already limited supply is being confronted with a growing demand for this resource. As countries are increasingly exploiting international water resources, tensions and threats of violent conflicts arise. Using the example of the Nile Basin, the prospects and probabilities for peace are examined by means of considering democracy economic interdependence.

The shared membership in international organizations is the factor that increases the possibility of peace. In most accounts, the major players in the Nile Basin, which are Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia perform rather poorly, but realist constraints on the likelihood of war, as well as recent signs of the will to co-operate on the management of the Nile waters, are more of giving positive signs.

As per the quotes, ‘The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile.’ (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Egypt’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, 1988.1) Planet Earth is the only one that harbours life due to the existence of water in liquid form on its service. Of this water tat covers three-quarters of the Earth’s surface; approximately one per cent is fit for consumption by human beings, plants, and animals (Hillel, 1994).

This small portion is moreover subjected to inequitable spatial repartition which makes it a precious resource for the majority of people on Earth. On top of this, over the last years, the greenhouse gas effect within the atmosphere has included climatic changes that also affect the hydrological cycle increasing existing inequalities of water distribution around the globe. Countries that receive plenty of rainfall get flooded while arid regions continue to get dryer.

The ever-increasing pollution of freshwater further limits the amount of water that can be utilized. Therefore, in such a situation, water is bound to become the main cause of international tensions in the current century (Waterbury and Whittington, 1998). This case is particularly true for those countries where water scarcity is a constraint for development and where international water resources can be utilized to ease this particular constraint. In such a case, the competing demands of countries sharing such a resource are going to open up new conflicts and intensify existing ones.

A case in point is river Nile as its basin encompasses ten states, and as it passes one of the driest areas on Earth and through countries that are classified as facing water scarcity or even water-stressed (Nasr 1999) thus not only providing the basis for life in these countries but also offering the opportunity to utilize its waters for the economic development for its states. Therefore, given the vital and simultaneously limited character of this particular resource, and with the ever-increasing demand because of population growth, industrialization, urbanization, and increasing agricultural production (Webb and Iskandarani 1998) – there is a possibility for tension to arise between the states sharing this trans-boundary resource.

According to the Center for National Resources, Energy and Transport (CNRET), the Nile River Basin is one of the fifty-seven international river and lake basins in Africa, from the total of two fourteen listed in the world. A river basin as defined by this institution is that it is an area where the natural resource of water (rain, general water flow, melting snow, and others.) feeds a river that flows to the oceans, closed lands, seas or lakes. (Chatterji 2002, p. 4).

The location of the Nile River basin is along the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea and Indian Sea in the east. It is a prestigious river and is linked to the pharaoh’s country, Egypt, with its antic and fabulous civilization. As known from the past, the people of Egypt thought that the Nile was a holy river and referred to it as a god and Egypt itself as a gift of the Nile (Swain 1997). Since immemorial times, Egyptians utilized water from the River Nile by irrigating vast arid lands in the desert and attracting many peoples.

River Nile is also known to be the longest international river in the world (Swain 2002), With a length of 6,671 km. Its watershed area is about 2,850 million km2. But at historical times the river Nile was not as big as it is now (Said 1993). The long and complex geological and hydrological processes in which different independent lake basins in the central-east and north of Africa became connected through overflows during wet periods’ rainfalls are attributed to the river’s actual length.

Currently, the Nile River flows from the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire), Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan to Egypt, and finally into the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, from upstream to downstream, the Nile passes through ten countries. It has two main tributaries called the Blue Nile and the White Nile.

In consideration of characteristics of the river Nile, it is easy to gauge the role it plays in the region for the ten countries, which economically depend on exploiting its water resource. Yet this economic dependence on river Nile waters without clear arrangements among the involved states will lead to failure or even conflicts in the long term. As per Said (2002, p. 145), the Canadian security analyst Homer-Dixon predicted that the “Nile is one of the few international rivers which have the potential to ignite armed conflict among the states using its waters.”

There have been problems with the utilization of the water resources of the Nile.

Beginning from agriculture based on natural flooding, Egyptians introduced land management utilizing basin irrigation systems and, lately more elaborate irrigation systems of dykes, replacing artificial basins with take-off canals (Said 1993).

Supported by the favourable political situation, Egypt developed many projects to utilize the Nile river to increase the welfare of its population. Some of these projects are the Aswan High Dam, the Jonglei Canal and the Sheikh Zahed Canal among others (Collins, no year), which were executed without the consent of the other riparian countries, except for Sudan. Apart from agricultural use, Egypt is currently utilizing Nile waters for Hydropower production and industrial and domestic supplies.

With the British arrangement in 1929, while Great Britain was representing Kenya, Tanzania, the Sudan and Uganda, Egypt became the unique user of the Nile’s waters. The Agreement stated that “no works or other measures likely to reduce the amount of water that reaches Egypt were to be constructed or taken in Sudan or in territories under British administration without prior Egyptian consent” (Belyazid et al. 2000).

Sudan after its independence in 1956 asked Egypt for negotiations to revise the 1929 agreement. This was followed by a serious dispute between the two countries for two years about the distribution of Nile waters and, when Sudan declared its non-adherence to the 1929 agreement, Egypt moved troops to their common border. In 1958 a military coup took place in Sudan and the new regime was more favourable to Egypt and they revised the 1929 agreement in 1959 in order to redistribute the total of the Nile waters between them (Swain 1997).

The agreements signed before independence put Egypt and Sudan in a privileged position to exclusively utilize the Nile’s waters. It also created a customary claim to this resource. However, after independence, the other countries did not recognize this claim and they maintain that they have sovereignty over the waters within their boundaries. The claim of the latter for their share in the Nile waters seems to come natural, as the upstream riparian states are the main contributors of all the water that flows downstream.

Beyond such considerations, with population growth, rainfall scarcity and many economic constraints in the countries of the Nile Basin, it is becoming obvious for these states to look for all possible resources of water and also transboundary ones, to satisfy their current and future requirements for development.

Tensions among riparian states of the Nile, for shares in its water resources, are Ring. The Nile water, so far only shared by Egypt and Sudan, is even insufficient to meet the needs of all of Egypt’s projects; so how could they accept claims of other countries? For some upstream countries like Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, which precipitations are still sufficient, agriculture is possible without irrigation. Some of these countries have got other rivers that provide them with water.

But for other riparian states of the Nile, like Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan and Egypt, the River Nile and its tributaries are the only dependable sources of their waters. They are known to be dependent on water for irrigation if they want to utilize the lands within their territories for agriculture. However, colonial agreements, that were relevant to those countries, are not adapted to today’s situation as the states concerned maintain that they are to be either revised or dissolved. Therefore, Conflicts on Nile resource management are most likely to arise between these countries; which rely on the Nile’s resources.

Before the independence of the other riparian countries, Egypt came up with a plan referred to as Master Plan. In it, hydraulic structures were to be constructed in Uganda, Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan. The realization of such structures in these countries was also expected to extend to the Nile water regime in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi (Said 1993). However, in post-independence, the new states turned down the plan citing that it was not conceived by them and they aimed at managing resources for development themselves. Therefore, Egypt failed to execute the Master Plan and continued to utilize the waters of the Nile to satisfy the needs of its population.

This included the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which was among those earlier involved in the Master Plan. During the construction of the Aswan Dam and over the following years most of the other riparian states faced the shake of internal political troubles and could not execute any development plans. Therefore Egypt, based on its 1959 agreement with Sudan, continued to profitably utilize Nile resources (Said 1993).

At the moment, the internal strife in many of the riparian states has been managed and these states begin to consider rebuilding and developing their nations. Moreover, despite unrest and wars, the population in these countries was still growing fast and it is expected to continue in the future. The question is, how can these states afford economic development without the utilization of the resources of the Nile?

In upstream states, Egypt is only willing to accept hydropower dams or small dams used for domestic water supply, like those at the moment built in Ethiopia, are not harmful to their own irrigation schemes (Collins, no year). Because of this reason and complementary to the favourable topographic conditions, the Nile Basin has a high hydropower capacity.

On top of increasing populations, the states in the Nile Basin are also faced with competing and independent plans for future water management projects by the different states. Egypt and Ethiopia are pursuing their strategies of creating “facts on the ground” that would put them into a better bargaining position for any eventual future negotiation. Egypt is pursuing this by an ambitious scheme of land reclamation and settlement, the New Valley Project. Ethiopia on its part is proceeding with the construction of micro dams in the Tigray province, as these can be built economically and without foreign technical assistance as Ethiopia has hardly tipped into the irrigation potential of its land.

In the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the African Great Lakes Region, with regard to specific conflicts that involved water issues, over the last 50 years there have been two armed conflicts; In 1958 there has been a military dispute between Egypt and Sudan during pending negotiations over the Nile waters. Also, in 1963/64 there were border conflicts between Ethiopia and Somalia over disputed territory where critical water resources were located (Gleick 2000).

From the above analysis, it has become clear that there are three states that are either dependent on the Nile and utilize virtually all its waters or that have the potential to utilize a substantial share of the Nile’s waters in future. These are Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia and it is these states whose governments could have tangible reasons to be involved in an armed conflict – respectively upstream states are probably not the ones that could initiate an armed conflict as they can already control and utilize the water they require. However, such an undertaking might be the very reason that provokes downstream countries to turn to military action.

According to Jenny Day who carried out research on the management of freshwater ecosystems in southern Africa, he states that it is easy to think of Africa as a continent of desert in the north and tropical forest elsewhere, but the fact is that arid conditions dominate much of southern Africa too. Therefore, Issues of water resources span the whole gamut from individual families’ supply to supply for vast industrial complexes, from drought to flood, and from water quality to the conservation of aquatic ecosystems. There have been issues on water supply and demand, issues related to water quality, and the conservation of aquatic ecosystems among the countries that share the water resources. This has for example prompted South Africa to come up with a new Water Act.

Southern Africa is taken as the continent south of 10oS which includes the political entities of South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, as well as most of Zambia and Angola, and forms a geographically recognizable unit. Rainfall is remarkably seasonal in the more mesic areas, thus becoming more unseasonal, more unpredictable, and more episodic in the arid regions to the south and west.

This climatic feature on the other hand means that virtually the entire region is without any significant quantity of rain at least for several months of each year, so water has to be stored for use in the dry months. The situation is particularly crucial for growing crops in the Mediterranean-climate region of the Western Cape, in which summer drought normally coincides with the hottest time of year. In short, much of southern Africa faces a serious water deficit most of the time and is periodically hit by severe droughts. Others are linked to ENSO (El Nino-Southern Oscillation) events and others to some other, roughly 11-year, climatic cycle (e.g., Tyson, 1986).

Large dams are found throughout Southern Africa region. The ones that form the largest reservoirs are the Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams on the Zambezi River, and the Gariep and Vanderkloof dams on the Orange River. Those on the Orange are largely used for water storage while those on the Zambezi are mostly used for the generation of hydroelectric power. Cahora Bassa and many of the dams in Angola have been affected by the civil wars over several decades. Water has been maintained at a constant level for 20 years or more, with virtually no electricity generated, while many of the dams in Angola have been physically damaged (Day, 1997).

In the inclusion of large dams constructed by or on behalf of the state, the subcontinent is littered with tens of thousands of small farm dams. There is currently increased awareness of the impact that these dams have on regional hydrology or the extent to which they increase the biodiversity of aquatic organisms, particularly in arid areas.

The annual growth rate of the human population in South Africa is about 2.3 per cent (Davies and Day, 1998), and of Namibia, three per cent (Population Planning Unit, 1994). Even if exact values are not known, it is likely that the growth rate throughout the region is well over two per cent per year, which will result in a doubling of the population in less than 25 years. This puts a lot of pressure on all-natural resources, and, of course, in the more arid areas water is the most limiting of all resources.

As in the case in any other part of the world, in southern African cities, water is required mostly for domestic consumption and industrial use. Approximately 10 per cent of the total consumption of water in South Africa is attributed to domestic use and about 20 per cent in Namibia. Mines and power stations use less than 10 per cent. In each country, more than two-thirds of all water is used for irrigation, mostly on large commercial farms: dry-land farming is not viable over almost the whole western half of southern Africa.

There are some general management issues that are particularly pertinent to southern Africa. Sustainable management of water and living resources is not possible without a relatively constant human population living within the carrying capacity of the land, good legislation and suitable policies inclusive. There is also the issue of laws versus “community”. Traditional behaviour patterns often conflict with western laws or policies. It is inconceivable to many local people, for instance, those large mammals (wildlife), which represent a valuable source of protein, are conserved in protected natural areas when the humans themselves may be going hungry.

The big issue is that of International water resources whereby several national borders in southern Africa are demarcated by rivers. On top of it, water is a valuable and scarce commodity. Thus potential exists for conflict in the use of water from border rivers and where rivers arise in one country and flow to the sea in another (e.g., the rivers of southern Mozambique arise in South Africa).

The new political dispensation in South Africa has provided an opportunity to rewrite many pieces of legislation, among them is the new Water Act and other legislation related to water supply and pollution control. The entire Act is a complex piece of legislation. Two are of major significance for the management of water and aquatic ecosystems.

According to Jamal O. Jaber and Mousa S. Mohsen of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Hashemite University who carried out the evaluation of non-conventional water resources supply in Jordan, they state that the severity of the water problem in Jordan was realized at the beginning of the 1980s. Many strategies and measures were proposed to alleviate and overcome this serious problem. These mainly include supply augmentation measures through the construction of various hydraulic structures and groundwater exploitation. Many integrated actions are needed to ensure water availability, suitability, and sustainability. Among the options is the development of new water resources such as brackish water.

Therefore, there is a need for the decision-support system for the evaluation and selection of potential non-conventional water resources supply; which includes desalination of brackish and seawater, treated wastewater, importation of water across boundaries and water harvesting. This has been discussed in a conference on Desalination Strategies in South Mediterranean Countries, Cooperation between Mediterranean Countries of Europe and the Southern Rim of the Mediterranean; which was sponsored by the European Desalination Society and Ecole Nationale d’Ingenieurs de Tunis on September 11–13, 2000, in Jerbe, Tunisia.

According to studies carries out on Central Eurasian water perspectives and arid land, by Iwao Kobori which concerned International cooperation for peaceful water management in critical areas, he states that there is a need for future peaceful and sustainable economic development.

The water level of the Dead Sea, which is one of the deepest inland lakes and with the highest salinity levels, has dropped in recent years, while the water level of the Caspian Sea has risen. It is also found that the Aral Sea is drying up, and its surface area has decreased by almost half. Although these facts are there, there is not enough information for use in long-range planning. The regional changes proceed at different time and space scales and for different reasons. There is a need to rescue and rehabilitate the lake regions if there is to be any hope for sustainable development in and around them in the not-too-distant future.

With the case of the Dead Sea, the problem for the future is how to stop the decrease in sea level and how to revitalize the Dead Sea region. A solution might be to resort to dramatic mega-engineering efforts. The other might be to support steady, small-scale development along its coastline. Activities such as these require careful management.

The water problems in the Dead Sea area have been largely a function of political tension between Israel and its neighbouring Arab countries. The construction of a national water pipeline by Israel has led to diminishing the water flow from Lake Tiberius into the Jordan River. As a result, the sea level of the Dead Sea has fallen. The inequitable distribution of water between Israel and the occupied territories has over the years caused a high level of tension between the inhabitants of both regions.

Israel, the PLO, and Jordan agreed on a peace treaty in 1993, although it is not substantial and well refined and agreement sealed. This was seen to be a milestone on the road to peace, even though many difficulties are likely to lie ahead. In reality, the planning of water resources is still under debate on both sides of the Jordan Valley and among outside authorities.

The Caspian Sea, which is one of the largest lakes in the world, environmental studies suggest that the problem of sea-level change is not so acute in comparison with that of the Aral Sea. Nevertheless, the recent increase in the level of the Caspian Sea, especially along the southern and south-western shorelines, pollution by petroleum industries, and the decline of lucrative fisheries are considered to cause problems for the inhabitants of the Caspian Sea coastal region.

The Caspian is currently surrounded by five states: Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. A few years ago, there were only two littoral states – the Soviet Union and Iran. On top of this, each former Soviet Central Asian republic has its own national political and socio-economic problems, which makes it difficult to coordinate these states for the sake of resolving the Caspian Sea problems.

International cooperation for peaceful water management in critical areas seems to be necessary. This calls for a new model of international cooperation in need of peaceful inter-state (i.e. transboundary) management of water resources. The problem is who should be expected to take the initiative in this activity: international organizations, non-governmental organizations, national or local decision-makers, the inhabitants, or some combination of them?

The environmental catastrophe in the Aral Sea basin has received much attention from the international community. Directing interest and attention into concrete action, however, is a hard task. For example, the headquarters of Aral-related organizations have been receiving visitors who come frequently to assess the crisis situation, but those visits have not given substantial results. The rehabilitation of the Aral Sea and its disaster zone needs very large resources. With the increasing demands for scarce international funds, the international communities have to consider to what extent they should get involved. Good information about what is happening in the region needs sustained monitoring of the physical aspects of ecological change, as well as the monitoring of socio-economic and cultural change.

There is a need for encouragement of cooperation among riparian countries and international groups involved in the region. Cooperative efforts among riparian countries for ground and space surveys using advanced technology are therefore much needed. On top of it, macro and micro socio-economic studies on the people in the Caspian Sea region should also be undertaken cooperatively. The exchange of researchers should be expanded and a fellowship for the region would be most welcomed.

In the case of the Dead Sea basin, which includes the Jordan Valley, a multinational framework is in the process of being developed. International organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, and big powers like the United States, Japan, and Canada, are keenly interested in the rehabilitation of this contested area. The improvement of waterworks, particularly for potable water for local inhabitants, is a high priority. Databanks on the water resources are well developed. However, has proven to be a complicated process to coordinate planning in an area of scattered Palestinian territories, the occupied West Bank under Israeli control, and Israeli territory.

Using as an example, from a public health point of view, Gaza faces an inadequate water network because it is under heavy population pressure. A giant engineering scheme is thought that could improve the situation in the future, but urgent funding is needed now to address the acute problems that the local inhabitants face today. There is impatience for a complete regional political settlement. On top of it, addressing pressing water supply problems today could help the peace process. Better living conditions and improved infrastructure for inhabitants could speed up a peaceful settlement of inter-state political tension in the region. Action in the future is very clear: keep the peace permanently. It is time to keep alive and get the peace process to a conclusion.


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