In an interview with the BBC, former United Nations Secretary Boutros Boutros Ghali predicted that conflicts would soon arise between countries in the Nile basin over rights to water that flows through the Nile.
Egypt has long been the largest user of water from the Nile, but countries upstream are coming closer to more intensively using that water, which Boutros Ghali predicts will lead to conflict between Egypt and countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya.
Boutros Ghali noted that Egypt’s population has more than tripled over the last 50 years and is still growing, putting heavy demand on Nile water resources. Boutros Ghali told the BBC,
The security of Egypt is related to the relation between Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and other African countries. The real problem is that we need an additional quantity of water and we will not have an additional quantity of water unless we find an a agreement with the upstream countries which also need water and have not used Nile water until now.
But the BBC interview failed to mention a major overriding problem with water in the Middle East and Africa — it is almost universally mismanaged, since it relies on bureaucracies setting water targets and policies rather than letting markets dictate the true cost of water.
In Egypt, for example, 85 percent of water goes to agriculture, and agricultural water use is micromanaged to the point where government committees plan out a year in advanced which crops will be allowed to grow where and how water will be allocated among them. Not surprisingly the result is large-scale inefficiency and misallocation of water resources.
Mismanagement of water is almost universal, even in countries such as the United States which don’t yet have severe water problems. But places like the Middle East and Northern African simply cannot afford to protect industries or individuals from the true cost and scarcity of water. Unfortunately, doing so is likely to prove very politically unpopular, but one can always hope that developing countries might prefer transparent markets in water to conflicts between states that may lead to larger problems, while leaving the underlying problem uncorrected.
Ex-UN chief warns of water wars. Mike Thompson, The BBC, February 2, 2005.