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Opinion: It's time to drop colonial water treaties in Africa

Dr. Harrison Mwilima
Harrison Mwilima
March 22, 2021

African countries need to stop using colonial-era treaties to hoard water resources. Instead, states need to focus on sustainable water management to mitigate the impacts of climate change, says DW's Harrison Mwilima.

A Somali girl collects water from a well at the Tawakal IDP camp on the outskirts of Mogadishu
With one in three Africans currently facing water scarcity, no good can come from hoarding resourcesImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Abdiwahab

As we mark World Water Day, I would like to take this time to remind African countries to stop taking advantage of colonial-era water agreements to benefit from shared water resources.

Instead, African countries need to pursue united strategies to combat looming water crises across the continent.

When colonial powers created the artificial borders of African countries, inland water bodies such as lakes and rivers were often used to mark these boundaries. In cases where a water source was shared by different countries, the colonial powers drew up their own agreements on how they would be used — without the consent of the people who were living in those territories.

Harrison Mwilima
Harrison Mwilima is a correspondent for DW's Kiswahili serviceImage: Carolin Seeliger

When the wave of independence swept the continent, African countries decided to retain those inherited borders. However, today, this means interstate tensions often arise whenever resources are discovered or become scarce in these shared water bodies. In such situations, the water agreements drawn up by the former colonial powers are used by some countries for their own gains.

Africa's longest river, the Nile —which flows through 11 African countries — is the source of the most recent water tensions. Egypt and Sudan want to preserve colonial agreements drawn up by Britain that allocate the Nile's water to the two countries and also grant Egypt power to veto any river projects.

However, in 2011 Ethiopia announced plans to construct a massive hydroelectric dam. When Ethiopia announced in 2020 that it had started filling the dam with water from the Nile, Egypt cried foul, arguing that Ethiopia needed to comply with the colonial water treaties. Ethiopia, meanwhile, maintains it is entitled to the shared use of the Nile's water.

A satellite image of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project has sparked tensions between African states over colonial-era water agreementsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Maxar Technologies

Colonial water agreements have also led to a dispute over a shared lake between Tanzania and Malawi — known as Lake Nyasa to Tanzanians and Lake Malawi to Malawians. The discovery of oil and gas in 2011 brought an Anglo-German treaty signed in 1890 back to the fore. The treaty allows Malawi — which, back then, was a British protectorate under the name of Nyasaland — exclusive rights to use of the lake. However, Tanzania claims the lake should be a shared resource in accordance with international law.

These are just two examples of many showing how easily colonial-era treaties can spark water conflicts between African countries. But while both sides bicker over who is entitled to what, it's crucial to remember that many African counties are at high risk of water scarcity. Climate change has left the continent even more vulnerable to droughts and floods. One in three people across Africa already doesn't have sufficient access to water supplies.

To tackle these challenges, African governments need to come together and think beyond the needs of individual states. Playing the colonial card to secure access to water resources does nothing to mitigate the water challenges African countries are facing — and will continue to face in decades to come.

What we need now is the sustainable management of water resources, so that the water needs of today's population can be met, without jeopardizing water security for future generations.