In the past, water management was localized and traditional. As settlements grew into cities, the need for new water sources, storage, canals, and cisterns expanded water management to regional scales. The industrialization of developed nations resulted in increased urban populations, leading to the introduction of national water policies to ensure a reliable water supply.
However, there is now a recognized need for integration across usage, sectors, scales, and institutions in water management as the current sectoral approach is fragmented. This international acknowledgment has led to the modernization of water infrastructure and the provision of high-quality, reliable water supply enjoyed by many today.
Water diplomacy framework has emerged as a method to resolve water resource issues and foster cooperation among countries. This practice uses water as a tool for conducting international and regional relations, whether bilateral or involving a third party. By promoting cooperation, water diplomacy aims to resolve or reduce disagreements and conflicts over shared water resources. Water is arguably the most crucial natural resource for society, crossing country borders and requiring collaborative solutions.
In African countries, meeting competing needs across multiple sectors and addressing the claims to water by numerous stakeholders require multi-level water resource management, primarily through water diplomacy approaches.
Given the complexity of contemporary and emerging water problems that require diplomatic negotiation frameworks, Africa must identify what constitutes a complex water problem and how to resolve the inherent competing and conflicting needs.
In Africa, issues concerning water access, need, usage, and management are considered complex due to their crossing of multiple boundaries, such as political, social, and jurisdictional, as well as physical, ecological, and biogeochemical. Sustainability and equity are increasingly recognized as normative anchors to address the values and interests of African countries in addressing these complex water issues.
While normative anchors provide overarching principles to guide water management strategies in Africa, their contextual nature means they cannot be pre-specified. Instead, they must be debated and negotiated through an open participatory process, contingent upon the specific issues and stakeholders involved in a water conflict.
Ethiopia utilizes the water diplomacy approach to address neighboring countries’ questions regarding shared water resources. This alternative approach departs from traditional value-focused water management methods, instead prioritizing mutual understanding and cooperation. By identifying critical political points and proposing sustainable resolutions that incorporate diverse viewpoints, uncertainty, and changing demands, this approach diagnoses water problems and fosters collaboration between neighboring countries.
Ethiopia’s water management decisions have evolved to address issues such as accessing water at its source and determining resource utilization. Consequently, Ethiopia also confronts the complex challenge of managing and allocating water resources amidst multiple and competing demands in the natural, societal, and political domains.
To tackle these complex water problems, Ethiopia’s water diplomacy approach relies on diverse forms of contextual inquiry, emphasizing diplomatic negotiation and cooperation frameworks with neighboring countries.
Ethiopia’s government policy directions suggest that the water diplomacy framework offers an alternative to value-focused approaches for managing water problems in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia recognizes that water diplomacy can address water resource usage problems and provide sustainable solutions for other countries as benchmark points that are sensitive to diverse viewpoints and the changing and competing needs of the Horn of Africa’s nations. Therefore, cooperation-based approaches are crucial.
Ethiopia’s water diplomacy with neighboring countries, including Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt, centers on shared values, interests, and tools for managing water resources. Ethiopia’s values stem from deeply held beliefs that shape how countries, leaders, and people view water resources and their fair usage by other countries. These values prioritize economic cooperation, political discussions, common solutions, people-to-people relations, cultural preservation, and ethical considerations when cooperating with neighboring countries.
Ethiopia’s domestic watershed processes and management utilize integrated water resource management approaches, emphasizing basin-level resource characterization and management. While there are recognized challenges associated with the watershed approach to water resource management, such as boundary choice, accountability, public participation, and asymmetries, these issues also require water resource usage and cooperation strategies.
Recognizing the inflexibility of conventional approaches to address complex water problems involving conflicting values, interests, risks, and uncertainty, the Ethiopian government advocates for water diplomacy frameworks. These frameworks have gained attention among policymakers and regional institutions in their ability to provide flexible and adaptable solutions to water conflicts.
Ethiopia argues that it has the right to utilize its natural resources to address widespread poverty and improve the living standards of its people, as its highlands supply more than 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River. Ethiopia asserts that the hydroelectric Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will not significantly impact the Nile’s water flow, while Egypt, heavily reliant on the Nile’s waters for household and commercial purposes, views the dam as a significant threat to its water security.
In addition to generating affordable electric power, the GERD will provide benefits to African countries as a major mechanism for managing the Nile, including mitigating droughts and water salinity.
Sudan, Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, and other neighboring countries can benefit from improving diplomatic relations among themselves. Areas of particular importance include cooperation on water resources, trade, education and cultural exchanges, regional integration, natural resource management, peace and security, counter-terrorism operations, illegal and irregular migration reduction, and addressing significant challenges to economic growth and poverty alleviation, like climate change, high levels of illiteracy, and poor infrastructure.
The Nile riparian community must acknowledge that the Nile is one of the world’s largest rivers and a plentiful resource for all nations. Effective management of the river must be approached from a basin-wide perspective. Therefore, cooperation among Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other riparian countries is crucial for peacefully resolving conflicts over the Nile and achieving water use that significantly contributes to regional economic and human development.
Sudan, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, and others need to improve relations among themselves, which can go a long way in enhancing the ability of their leaders to negotiate and adopt agreements that reflect the interests of citizens, especially regarding economic development and poverty alleviation.
For instance, Ethiopians, Sudanese, and Egyptians are more likely to understand and appreciate the challenges that they face, particularly in the areas of water security, climate change, food production, and poverty alleviation, if they regularly interact with each other and engage in more bottom-up, participatory, and inclusive approaches to the resolution of their conflicts. Citizens and governments in the Horn of Africa region should focus on peaceful solutions for any issues related to water cooperation.
While the countries in the Horn can agree on common goals, any agreement must include technical language to ensure the equitable sharing of water resources, particularly the Nile River and other rivers in the region.
Ethiopia collaborates with riparian states to develop and adopt an effective protocol for cooperation and negotiation with other countries. Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Egypt, and other nations must recognize that meaningful progress requires the establishment of a resource-sharing agreement and cooperation framework.
To build on existing water diplomacy in the Horn of Africa, the Ethiopian government must adopt approaches such as joint fact-finding, mutual cooperation, negotiation, water diplomacy frameworks, and scenario-building bilaterally, multilaterally, and trilaterally. Leaders can offer innovative views and approaches, emphasizing water-related resource usage methods and cooperation strategies. These approaches and strategies should address the distinct but complementary role water diplomacy actions can play in conventional transboundary water cooperation arrangements.
As a researcher, I see the establishment of future-oriented processes, strategies, common policies, and goals as crucial to promoting transboundary water cooperation in the Horn of Africa region. Ethiopia’s foreign policy frameworks and principles can enhance the success of water diplomacy and its frameworks in the Horn of Africa.
(Getachew Toma is an assistant professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is a peace, security, diplomacy, and international relations researcher in the Horn of Africa. He can be reached at [email protected].)
Contributed by Getachew Toma