The premise of the Pulitzer Center's reporting project on East Africa water issues is explicit in the title itself -- WaterWars, the notion that increasing population and unequal access is a near-certain recipe for conflict in the decades ahead.
But what if the challenges of competition over water led to cooperation instead? What if the very essentialness of water to life means that otherwise opposed individuals, groups and nations may in fact be more likely to set aside narrow self-interest to pursue sustainable solutions for all?
A recent reporting trip to Ethiopia, under the auspices of the Geneva journalism organization Media21, offered intriguing evidence for this counter-intuitive view, from small-scale regional studies to issues as big as the Nile River basin.
On the small-scale side consider the Berki River catchment in the northeastern Tigray section of Ethiopia.This small tributary of the Nile (via the Giba and Tekeze rivers) has all the ingredients for trouble: in the mountains small-plot farmers dependent on pumps to water their crops, in the lowlands bigger farms ripe for irrigation via diversion channel, and in the middle a Muslim town short of water and a spring that the local Christian church considers holy -- and thus off limits to farm or personal use.
Kidanemariam Jembere, country coordinator for the Ethiopian Country Water Partnership, a collaborative organized by the Sweden-based Global Water Partnership, tells the story. His team put together a Tigray Water Workshop, bringing highlands farmers downstream and the lowlands farmers up, showing them the benefits -- and necessity-- of sharing the Berki water. On the Christian/Muslim dispute the workshop stressed the Muslims' commitment to careful stewardship of the spring, maintaining its spiritual value for the church.
"In the beginning people said that as long as water reaches my field I control it," Jembere recalled. "We had to teach that it was a shared resource." Jembere says the lesson is simple: "You can use conflict as an opportunity for cooperation."
Two senior Ethiopian government officials insist that the same logic applies on the much vaster scale of the Nile River itself -- historically the locus of fierce competition over water rights and resentment toward Egypt, which for millennia has commanded the lion's share of the Nile's bounty. The nine nations that make up the the Nile River Basin Initiative have been debating cooperative rules for distributing the river's water for over a decade, and according to the Ethiopian participants progress among the major players has been real.
"The history of dispute, mistrust, and misinformation over the Nile can make it seem that these countries will not be able to resolve their differences," said Tesfaye Wolde-Mibret, the Ethiopian project coordinator for the Nile Basin Initiative. He says that "as of now there is no reason to conclude that Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, cannot solve their differences."
Adugna Jebessa, the federal minister of water resources for Ethiopia, was even more emphatic, telling our group of journalists that "there is no possibility of conflict." Jabessa said that in his view the work of the Nile Basin Initative is "addressing the same family, sharing one river. It's not separate families -- it's just one family."
Jebessa recalls the skepticism of many when the Nile Basin talks began, in 1999. "The vision was of strong economies working together, of economic integration and the joint development of physical and social infrastructure within an environment of trust, peace and stability. This appeared unattainable to many, at the start of [the Nile Basin Initiative] in 1999. Later on it was found to be otherwise -- that it was indeed a possibility.
David Douglas, president of Water Advocates, notes that the potential for conflict is one reason water has gained some traction in recent years as a news subject. But Douglas, citing the work of water specialist Peter Gliek, suggests that historically water is more often the reason disparate groups come together than a cause of wars.
"More often than not water disagreements have been a source for not conflict but concord, agreements and treaties," Douglas says. "I think that's not a bad paradigm for the future, that water can be a bridge where politics stop."