Water is the new oil. While western politicians and consumers fret over the declining economy and increasing oil prices, the news from East Africa is that with a growing majority of the world living on less than a dollar a day, the liquid that fuels bodies is becoming even more contentious than the liquid that fuels cars.
I’ve spent the last four months reporting stories about water from Ethiopia and Kenya, two countries at the forefront of the world’s coming water crisis. The director of a local water NGO told me a few days after I arrived in Ethiopia in January 2008, "As you may know, Alex, the coming World War III will be fought over water, not oil." Variations on that refrain were echoed by aid workers and researchers across the region over the next several months. Women walk for miles each day to collect drinking water; farmers are pushed into deadly conflict by dwindling river flows, and city water supplies are drained by overzealous irrigation. The bigger picture that the smaller stories hint at is one of ecological disaster and conflict over resources that will affect millions and have repercussions around the world.
Carrying water in Dillo, Ethiopia—photo by Alex Stonehill
The fringes of Ethiopia’s fertile highlands are dotted with camps housing refugees from water-based conflicts in the rest of the country. A few kilometers outside the ancient Muslim city of Harar, alongside a dry river bed, lies one such camp of 5,000 ethnic Somalis. They were driven from the Ogaden region by inter-clan conflict over access to water and pastureland. The camp is a sprawling expanse of small, wood-framed domes covered with a patchwork of plastic and other scrap material, whatever families can scavenge to shield themselves from the equatorial sun.
These people lost all their livestock, as well as many of their family members, to the conflict, and they now survive on cactus and occasional handouts from the locals. In recent months that hospitality has begun to wear thin as well. To get water to drink and wash they dig into the sandy bottom of the dry riverbed until they’ve scratched deep enough to reveal the muddy water that flows beneath.
The elders of the village earnestly described their situation to me, asking hopefully if I knew anyone who could help, but I suspected that their story would never find its way into the media. After all, the scale of their tragedy can’t compare to other African conflicts that are making the news and there isn’t any element of geopolitical intrigue here—just poor people fighting over water.
I later realized that, in fact, the scale of this story was massive. Refugees from similar conflicts over access to shrinking water and pasture- land are scattered across southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
Pastoralists are especially vulnerable to climate change because they already live so close to the margins, dependant on grazing their cattle and camels in areas where agriculture is barely viable. A small decrease in rainfall can be a death sentence for animals if sparse watering holes go dry. Most herders are armed against predators and would sooner clash with other groups to get access to water than stand by and watch their animals die.
The two main insurgencies currently beleaguering the Ethiopian government are devoted to the independence of Oromia and the Ogaden, both long-neglected lowland areas with large pastoralist populations. Neighboring Somalia, which for over 15 years has been dominated by inter-clan conflicts like the one that displaced the refugees in Ethiopia, is an extension of the same arid lowland and is almost entirely populated by pastoralists as well. Even the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda were born from the cultural collisions between pastoralists and farmers.
There’s no denying that these are politically motivated conflicts, but the role water scarcity plays in creating the preconditions of desperation and discontent is equally undeniable.
"Water is life" is a phrase repeated over and over again by East African aid workers. But a more revealing variation might be "water symbolizes wealth." Even in highland urban capitals like Addis Ababa and Nairobi, where temperatures are cool and rains are plentiful, access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities tops the list of problems cited by slum dwellers, who make up half the population of some cities. Deaths from waterborne disease usually receive less attention, although they typically exceed deaths from AIDS.
Damaged water pipe in Kibera—photo by Alex Stonehill
In Nairobi city water infrastructure ends at the edge of Kibera, the continent’s second largest slum. An informal private sector of water vendors takes over from there, jerry-rigging a network of cheap plastic pipes and water tanks that taint the water with free flowing sewage. The million people who live in Kibera typically end up paying hundreds of times more than those in other Nairobi neighborhoods for water that makes them sick.
Slum residents are angry about this kind of government neglect. Tensions increase further when such neglect appears to exist along ethnic lines. When slum residents riot, as they did following last December’s elections in Kenya, it is usually presented in the media as violence in a vacuum or as ethnic strife. But it’s no coincidence that this kind of violence often breaks out in places where people lack access to basic services like water and don‘t have many other options for getting the attention of their political leaders. When chaos erupted in Kibera in January, some of the first targets for vandalism were tanks owned by water vendors who had been price gouging for years.
A Ugandan environmentalist told me about the nightmare prospect of the world’s second largest lake drying up completely. Lake Victoria’s levels have receded by several meters in recent years, destroying the breeding grounds for fish, and endangering the 30 million East Africans who live around the lake. Kenyans chasing fish into deeper Ugandan waters have been arrested and allegedly tortured by Ugandan military.
In addition to rising temperatures, decreased rainfall, and watershed deforestation, scientists and fisher- people alike blame new hydroelectric projects at the source of the River Nile in Uganda from draining too much water out of the shrinking lake.
Without international cooperation on conservation, this sort of tit for tat race to exploit resources faster than a neighbor may ensure that Lake Victoria ends up like other devastated bodies of water, such as the Aral Sea and Lake Chad.
Conflicts over the water resources of the Lake Victoria/Nile River system seem almost inevitable. The nine countries that share the system (Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo) are some of the world’s poorest nations and their populations are exploding, increasing stress on endangered water resources.
Just as Kenyan farmers are decreasing inflows into Lake Victoria by cutting forests in its watersheds, the Ugandan government is increasing outflows by running more water through its new dams into the Nile. Just as Ethiopians are pushing to industrialize their agricultural sector for export, putting new land under irrigation, hundreds of miles down- river Egypt is channeling millions of gallons of water out of the river to "reclaim" vast swaths of desert.
With the current regional population of 387 million on course to double in the next 30 years, the equation of available gallons of water from this system just doesn’t add up. Movements for international cooperation, such as the Nile Basin Initiative, have yielded some promising results, but in a corner of the world already fraught with tense rivalries, control over the most basic human resource is almost certain to be a cause for violent conflict.
For Americans, environmentalism has traditionally been concerned with preserving natural beauty for its own sake and protecting nature from the advances of civilization. But in East Africa, home to an impressive environmental movement, environmentalism is inseparable from humanitarianism. Here, when ecosystems are destroyed, people are almost always directly harmed as well, even if they are the ones doing the destroying.
The experiences of Africans struggling to find fish in Lake Victoria or fighting over dwindling pastureland for their livestock in Ethiopia might not seem like particularly important stories for U.S. news audiences. But these small stories are relevant for what they tell us about the story of the planet as an ecological whole. When violence over access to basic resources like water erupts among people who depend directly on the earth for their survival, it is an important reminder. Despite the distinctions we’ve imagined between the survival of the natural environment and our own prosperity, the health of the earth and the health of humans are one and the same.