In July 2007, news that scientists from Boston University had discovered, through remote sensing by use of radar, an ancient lake covering 19,110 square miles under the war-ravaged, arid plateau, in the Darfur region, was warmly welcomed.
Many thought this signalled an end to a war analysts blame largely, on water scarcity, which has claimed thousands of lives, a source of a huge humanitarian catastrophe, as displaced persons find their way into neighbouring countries.
The resultant struggles between nomadic pastoralists and farmers for the crucial resource for watering their animals or plants respectively, are a source of much debate.
Farouk el-Baz, Boston University’s, Centre for Remote Sensing, Director, told The Times UK, “what most people don’t really know is that the war, the instability, in Darfur is all based on the lack of water”.
Claims backed by French geologist, Mr. Alain Gachet, “this Lake was at the bottom of a broad watershed feeding the Nile above Khartoum,” although he thought that the scientists had a slim hope of finding water under the Darfur, he added that, “this watershed is completely dry today on the southern border of Egypt, Libya and north-western border of Sudan - one of the worst areas in the world.”
One year later, Darfur is back in the news, for all but the wrong reasons. Water wells have not been drilled to end the conflict notwithstanding that this precious resource, water is still a major part of the problem.
In 1999, the UNDP predicted that in the next two and a half decades, African countries would begin to fight over water, especially in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country.
The age-old adage that water is life needs no repeating. Two thirds of the human body is composed water. We feed of plants or animal by-products that depend on water to grow.
The biggest centres of civilization in the world are constructed around points of water sources. The ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia developed between the river’s Tigris and Euphrates, while Egypt developed around the Nile.
According to Alex Stone hill, in his article, “World Water Crisis”; the Lake Victoria/Nile River system and its nine associated 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 with exploding populations, increasing stress on valuable water resources.
In as much as the Great Lakes region grapples with the current global food crisis, the scarcity of water is urgent – a potential threat to our survival. So should we believe the pessimists who are quick to jump to the Water wars - World War Three scenario?
Perhaps yes, because, we need water, and we do not have water, then we will fight to get some water. But then, why is the region, and many other flaring regions in the world, facing threats due to water scarcity?
“There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur,” reads the U.N.
Environmental Program report, “exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal or ethnic differences,”.
Lydia Polgreen, in ‘How Much Is Ecology to Blame for the Darfur Crisis?’, says that the idea that more water, unearthed through a thousand wells sunk into the underground lake, could neatly defuse the crisis is seductive.
Messy African conflicts, from Congo to Liberia, from northern Uganda to Angola, seem to become hopelessly more complex as they agonizingly drag on, year after year.
She adds that a scientific explanation for environmental degradation gratifies the modern humanitarian impulse.
The truth of the matter remains that as the world population explodes, there will be more mouths to feed and hence, more food must be produced.
In 1999, Worldwatch lamented that agriculture is by far the biggest user of water in Africa accounting for 88% of water use, and by implication, water scarcity would directly affect the continents’ food availability.
Even going on to suggest that to pre-empt the crisis of water, hence food shortage, African’s countries should consider importing grain.
With hindsight, that was never the best of advice. Instead, it is now important that Africa look towards producing its own food to mitigate shocks from shortages elsewhere, and thus, ensure that the valuable water resources can be sustainable.
Its alarming enough that the water levels of the Lake Victoria have fallen in recent years, because, countries downstream heavily depend on its water, especially Egypt, and to a large extend, Sudan and Ethiopia.
With Uganda more interested in damming the Nile to stem the acute shortage of power she is currently experiencing; amid accusations of deforestation in the Kenyan highlands from which some of the rivers that pour into the lake originate from.
The lower riparian states uneasy with such developments, that ultimately mean less water is reaching them, is bound to be a cause for friction among the Nile basin states.
The Nile Basin Initiative, intends to tackle these concerns by the affected countries that include Burundi, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda.
The plan includes designs to harness the basin’s water for irrigation, and also the establishment of an energy policy to provide power for all the countries in the region, according to Antoine Sendama, the Initiative’s, regional coordinator.
Rwanda has a very special role to play. A recent expedition by a New Zealand team of explorers, claims to have reached the “true source” of the River Nile after travelling 6,700 kilometres in the Nyungwe forest.
So conservation efforts targeting the Nyungwe area can be assumed to indirectly protect an important source of inflow to the lake waters.
According to an article in the Diplomatic Courier magazine, The NBI has become the most important mechanism so far to encourage cooperation among the riparian countries.
Each NBI member has agreed to share information with other riparian on projects it intends to launch and, if possible, undertake joint studies to ensure the sustainable utilization of water.
While water gives life a lack of it can be a source of much conflict, taking away that very life, the biggest challenge therefore is to end water-based conflicts.