Water Management and Conflicts in Africa: The Role of Knowledge and Technology

Over the last two decades, a plethora of studies have investigated the actual and potential links between environmental change and violent conflict. In general, the idea of ‘environmental sources of conflict’ has been highly influential, especially in Western countries. The claim that, “the wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water” is so widely-spoken of to have become almost a cliche. Analysts point primarily to the volatile geo-political situation surrounding the Nile basin, or the strategic importance of the rivers of the Middle East, as evidence for this view. Many violent conflicts in Africa have gone on for many years, and the actors, motivations, resource flows and strategies have changed over time. Often, the causes and manifestations of conflict are purposefully obscured for the self-interest of those involved: for example, ideology is often utilized as a handy cloak to obscure more materialistic motivations. The topic is huge, and this paper will only attempt to sketch out some key issues. It first makes reference to the debates (within academic and political contexts) over the existing and potential significance of water as a source of conflict in Africa. It then offers working definitions of conflict (at local, national, and international levels) with relevance to Africa. Then, based on brief case studies the paper provides some examples of key issues in disputes at the interstate, national, and local level. Perhaps the main point of the paper however, is that ideas of conflict over water should be broadly defined, to include debates over water allocation and pricing, for example. Such issues, though not directly leading to bloodshed, are as significant as violent conflicts in terms of their effects on livelihoods.