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Three International Water Conflicts to Watch

Patrick Johnson

China-India: The Brahmaputra River

The Brahmaputra River is a 2,900 km river that originates in Tibet and flows through India’s Arunachal Pradesh state before merging with the Ganges and draining into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It is considered an important resource in all three countries that it flows through: for energy-hungry China, it provides hydroelectricity; and for India and Bangladesh, a key agricultural lifeline in otherwise overpopulated and arid region.

The Brahmaputra River is particularly important to the agricultural industry in India’s Assam plains, and worries have arisen recently regarding a series of hydroelectric plants that China is in various stages of construction on its Tibetan plateau. Some experts believe that these projects will reduce the flow of the Brahmaputra in India, compounding an already tenuous water situation in the affected areas.

While there is no comprehensive bilateral treaty in place for the sustainable management of the Brahmaputra River, some steps have been taken recently by the Modi and Xi Jinping governments, mainly in the form of an information sharing agreement for hydrological data. But until cooperation becomes more entrenched, the Brahmaputra River remains a potential source of friction between two of the world’s preeminent rising powers.

Ethiopia-Egypt: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile River

In 2011, the Ethiopian government announced plans to build the ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’ – a $4.1 bn, 6,000MW-capacity hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan. The dam is meant to capitalize on Ethiopia’s considerable hydroelectric potential and provide electricity for not just Ethiopians but regional populations as well. However, some fear that this dam will trade one problem for another. And by shoring up its energy supply, Ethiopia might be jeopardizing its water security by increasing the volatility of a river that already has a long history of being difficult to predict.

The potential impact on water supplies, particularly downriver, is a grave concern in Egypt; which, unlike neighboring Sudan, has consistently opposed the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam from the start. Cairo’s legal argument defers to treaties from 1929 and 1959 that guarantee Egypt two-thirds of the Nile’s waters along with the right to veto any upstream projects – a right that was ignored when Ethiopia unilaterally went ahead with construction.

Efforts to foster a multilateral approach to developing the Nile basin have so far failed, as evidenced in the 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement that saw upriver countries join together against the downriver countries (Egypt, Sudan) who refuse to give up their historical rights despite changing economic power dynamics in the region.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to be completed sometime in 2017.

Turkey-Iraq: Ilisu Dam and the Tigris River

Turkey’s newly re-elected Erdogan government has been keen to push through the final part of its long-running Southeastern Anatolian Project: the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River near the border of Syria. The Ilisu Dam is the most recent in a long line of Turkish projects meant to tap into the hydroelectric potential of both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and once completed the Ilisu Dam will generate 1,200 MW, or roughly 2% of Turkey’s energy needs.

The Southeastern Anatolian Project entailed the construction of some 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, so this is an international water conflict that has existed for quite some time. The big loser in Turkey’s upstream activities is Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Syria. Iraq has historically enjoyed the lion’s share of these rivers’ waters, which have historically supplied the seasonal marshlands needed to grow food. But these waters have been receding over the past decade, even well before the Ilisu Dam’s completion. In fact, northern Iraq and Syria are currently experiencing droughts so protracted thatsome analysts are questioning whether or not they have contributed to the rise of ISIS in the region. Some of the more extreme projections hold that, owing to a combination of climate change and upstream dam activity, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers won’t have sufficient flow to reach the sea by as early as 2040.


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