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Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa
Nigeria: Livestock reform is key to solving farmer-herder conflict
Nigeria: Livestock reform is key to solving farmer-herder conflict
The Royal Engineers Boat Group, a British military unit, patrols the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq in October 2006. FLICKR/David Axe

Water Wars? Lessons from the Middle East & North Africa

In a keynote speech for the World Water Week in Stockholm on 28 August 2016, our MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann assesses the role of water in Middle East conflicts – even, potentially, when used in the cultivation of Yemen’s beloved stimulant, qat.

I want to thank the organisers – AGWA, the Rockefeller Foundation, SIWI and UNESCO-IHP – for inviting me to speak here today, and in particular Anders Jägerskog of SIDA at the Swedish Embassy in Amman for his support.

I head the Middle East & North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict. In that capacity I have asked myself at times: Why haven’t we worked on water and conflict in the region I cover? Aren’t there plenty of reasons to do so? Indeed, conflict over water was practically invented in the Middle East. I’m going to do something now that I don’t often do: I’m going to quote from the Bible. It’s Sunday, after all.

This is from Genesis:

“Isaac’s servants also dug in the Gerar Valley and discovered a well of fresh water. But then the shepherds from Gerar came and claimed the spring. ‘This is our water’, they said, and they argued over it with Isaac’s herdsmen. So Isaac named the well Esek (which means ‘argument’). Isaac’s men then dug another well, but again there was a dispute over it. So Isaac named it Sitnah (which means ‘hostility’). Abandoning that one, Isaac moved on and dug another well. This time there was no dispute over it, so Isaac named the place Rehoboth (which means ‘open space’), for he said, ‘At last the Lord has created enough space for us to prosper in this land’”.

Well, dream on, I say! There appear to be no open spaces left in the Middle East, and “argument” and “hostility” have become the name of the game.

Instead of a sermon, though, I’m going to say a few things about how water relates to the potential for conflict. As an organisation, we have focused on the drivers of, and actors in, “hot” conflict, of which we have plenty in the region right now: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, always Palestine/Israel, and others. This distracts from the important underlying, longer-term issues that require attention, such as pressures on water resources. One can find examples of disputes over water triggering a “hot” war, but not many, at least not in recent times. The obvious one that comes to mind is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and the fight over access to the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway that is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates as they flow toward the …eh… Persian Gulf? Arab Gulf? You see, there is another problem right there. Let’s just say “the Gulf,” and agree that we all know what we’re talking about.

But other than that war (about which more in a minute), I can’t cite any recent examples. Yet once we take a closer look at the water question, we find interesting things. There is a very good piece in a recent issue of Middle East Report that discusses developments in a place called Wadi Barada in Syria and how these relate to the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad. It turns out that the fact that the river that runs through Wadi Barada dried up in the mid-1990s was a key contributing factor to why that area of the country joined the uprising. It’s clear from this example that any student or activist interested in the relationship between water and conflict would do well to pay close attention to developments such as these well before they lead to violent conflict. More about Wadi Barada in a moment.

What I have learned from my little research before this conference is that, broadly speaking, there are three categories of water and conflict: conflicts over access to water, conflicts over the allocation of water, and the use of water as a weapon in conflict. I will give examples of each, but let me first give some general characteristics about these three categories: (1) issues of access, allocation, and use as weapon can occur in internal and in cross-border situations (the term “transboundary” can denote both internal and cross-border); (2) they can be a cause, a contributing factor, or a pretext for armed conflict; and (3) they can be aggravated by weak governance resulting in poor water management. The question of state policy is important in all cases.

First, access. Conflicts over access usually concern a body of water or a water basin, and are made worse if they have a transboundary dimension. Let’s take another look at the example of the Shatt al-Arab. Access to this waterway has long been a matter of dispute between Iran and Iraq. To Iraq, the river provides critical access to the Gulf; it’s almost existential. To Iran, which has a long coast line on the Gulf, the matter is different, but because it has cities with major oil facilities on the Shatt it needs the river for transportation. Iraq had exclusive access to the Shatt in the early 1970s when Iran, for a number of reasons – of which access to the Shatt was one – began supporting Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in order to press the Iraqi government to make concessions. Which it did: in 1975 the Shah and Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement, in which they undertook to share the Shatt by dividing it along the thalweg, the line connecting the river’s lowest points.

In 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran by crossing the Shatt into Khuzestan. Saddam wanted to take advantage of post-revolution disarray in Tehran to deal the regime a setback or even bring it to collapse. The issue of the Shatt was merely one of a number of grievances Iraq had vis-à-vis Iran, but Saddam mentioned it as the primary casus belli. It was clearly a pretext for the invasion, not the main reason. (During the war, the Shatt was unnavigable; afterward it was again shared, if uneasily, between the two protagonists.)

So the Iran-Iraq war example offers the following: a conflict at least partly over access to a vital waterway; a combination of cause, contributing factor, and pretext, but arguably mainly the latter; a transboundary/international conflict; and instead of weak governance the actions of two autocratic governments that had little political will and limited capacity to establish mechanisms for resolving disputes.

Second, allocation. Here I go back to the example of the Wadi Barada, which is located between Damascus and the border with Lebanon. Because of the exponential growth of the capital in recent decades, including in the direction of Lebanon in the form of large housing estates for army officers and Alawite and Druze elites, water was diverted from the spring that fed the river flowing through the Wadi Barada in order to provide drinking water for the expanding population, and by the mid-1990s the river had dried up. Perhaps no surprise, therefore, that when protests broke out in southern Syria in the spring of 2011, the people of Wadi Barada quickly joined in, giving voice to their own specific grievances. Their main demands on the government were: (1) restore the river; (2) give access to clean drinking water; and (3) provide fair compensation for the agricultural lands expropriated in the 1970s and 1980s.

The plight of these locals was the direct result of state policies: discriminatory water allocation by an autocratic state and land expropriation, without redress (in the absence of an independent judiciary). After government negotiators met with representatives of the area, they made certain promises, but then nothing happened, the protests continued, and soon government forces came to suppress them. The result was an active and violent revolt, in tune with what was going on elsewhere in Syria, but in the case of Wadi Barada specifically because of what had happened earlier with the land expropriations and water diversion. Discriminatory water allocation therefore was an important contributing factor to the uprising in that part of Syria.

Third, as weapon. I’m not about to throw this bottle of water at you, but … the threat to unleash water collected behind a dam on a city can be quite powerful. The Iraqi regime feared Iran might be planning something along these lines when the latter invaded northern Iraq in the last year of the war, in 1988, aiming for the Darbandikhan dam that sits on the Diyala river; opening it could have flooded Baghdad downstream. Likewise, the Mosul dam became a strategic asset in 2014 after the Islamic State overran Iraqi government positions and captured Mosul and surroundings in June 2014. The risk of waters being unleashed and submerging Mosul threatened to turn a river into a weapon of war. (There has also been a risk of the dam’s collapse as a result of structural faults and lack of maintenance.)

So what is to be done? It is clear that those involved in conflict prevention need to take a closer look at the predictors of deadly conflict when it concerns water disputes:

Firstly, look more closely at disputes over access to water, water allocation, and the potential use of water as a weapon, and assess how they are being managed, by what mechanisms, by what degree of governance, what the recourse is, and so on.

Secondly, analyse the strength and adaptability of institutions and processes of transboundary water management and dispute resolution between riparian governments: how robust are these? Could they break down? How and when?

Thirdly, in times of conflict and crisis: Determine how to achieve water management despite such adverse conditions, and include it as an essential element of a peace settlement and post-conflict peace building.

That’s the agenda we face. Now I’ll end with a short anecdote. Some years ago, I was in Sanaa, and one of the meetings we had was with the minister of water, a very smart and engaging man, who for an hour related to us the difficulties of stamping out the culture of qat chewing, with qat being the kind of rather useless agricultural product whose cultivation was nevertheless consuming inordinate amounts of water. It was getting to be close to 2pm, however, and so rather late in the ministry’s working day, and the minister made it clear that the meeting was over, and it was time for him to hasten home … and preside over his afternoon qat chew.

Cultural habits are deeply ingrained. The misallocation of water for qat production in Yemen is going to run up against more pressing needs for water, and will trigger conflict sooner or later. The current war is not over water, but when it is ended – and let’s hope that moment will come soon – it will be incumbent on policymakers to tackle the knotty qat question, lest Yemen find itself in a Wadi Barada-type of situation sometime down the line.

Thank you.

Op-Ed / Africa

Nigeria: Livestock reform is key to solving farmer-herder conflict

Originally published in The Africa Report

Land disputes between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers occurred sporadically in Nigeria’s past, and relations between the two groups were largely amicable.

However, in recent years, violence between herders and farmers has alarmingly grown, spreading from the north to the central and southern states.

Violence between the two groups has claimed more lives than the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency in the north-east, disrupting rural communities and threatening Nigeria’s stability and food security.

The combination of environmental degradation and violence (attributable to climate change, high population growth, Boko Haram insurgency and armed criminal activity such as cattle rustling) has pushed herders from the north of the country southward in search of pasture and water, resulting in almost daily clashes with farming communities. The intensity of the violence varies from region to region, but so far, Nigeria’s north-west and north-central zones have been hit hardest.

Nigerian authorities responded by deploying security forces to the affected areas but later realised that a military response was insufficient to deal with the main cause of herder-farmer conflict: competition over land and water.

In 2019, following a surge in violent incidents the previous year, they adopted an ambitious, 10-year National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) that aims to alter these deadly patterns.

In a nutshell, the plan encourages pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems. By the end of 2028, authorities expect to have at least 119 ranches operating across several states, with the hope that more mechanised forms of livestock production will bolster the sector’s productivity.

Abuja projects that the planned establishment of ranches, alongside the resuscitation of long-neglected public grazing reserves, will create over two million jobs, mostly in the meat, dairy processing and marketing chains.

The federal government has committed to funding 80% of proposals submitted by participating states, while state governments and private investors are to provide the remaining 20%. Donors are also prepared to help.

The new plan was not Nigeria’s first attempt at developing a strategy to reduce competition for resources among herders and farmers, but it is the country’s most comprehensive livestock reform bid to date.

The new plan was not Nigeria’s first attempt at developing a strategy to reduce competition for resources among herders and farmers, but it is the country’s most comprehensive livestock reform bid to date. Many state governments, especially in the north, welcome the move with enthusiasm, and some have already demarcated grazing reserves or applied for funding from the federal government to set up ranches.

Misperceptions and misgivings

However, implementation has been slow. Two years after the launch of the NLTP, the first ranch is yet to be put up. A major obstacle is widespread distrust of the plan among herders and farmers.

Doubtful of the viability of ranches and grazing reserves, many herders are lukewarm about supporting the plan.

Doubtful of the viability of ranches and grazing reserves, many herders are lukewarm about supporting the plan. Leaders of some herders’ groups complain that 10 years is too short for pastoralists to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, which will have far-reaching cultural and social changes from nomadic communities. They also have legitimate doubts about sufficiency of the pasture that is to be made available in grazing reserves.

Additionally, farmers worry that they may be forced to hand over their land to livestock producers. Others are concerned that the reforms will unduly favour the nomadic Fulani community – fears partly attributable to the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is a Fulani.

Lack of funding (compounded by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic) as well as a dearth of technical experts and competent ranching staff has further thwarted progress.

Meeting the challenge

Nigerian authorities should work with donors and private sector partners to urgently address these and other challenges. Despite the government’s acknowledgement of the need for long-term solutions to promote peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers, only preliminary steps have been taken to implement the NLTP.

Abuja and supportive state governments should display stronger political backing for the new plan, improve public communication and win the support of herders and farmers by assuaging their concerns and dispelling misperceptions about NLTP’s purpose.

Furthermore, federal and state governments should engage with donors and investors to ease funding shortfalls. They should also increase efforts to build up expertise and train people on how to manage ranches and grazing reserves.

Reducing criminal violence, especially in the north-west and north-central zones, should be an urgent priority for the government.

A major concern is the proliferation of deadly criminal gangs and other armed groups that are cutting off access to grazing reserves and scaring away potential investors. Reducing criminal violence, especially in the north-west and north-central zones, should be an urgent priority for the government.

Authorities will also need to address two striking gaps. First, it does not mention how Nigeria intends to deal with foreign transhumant migrants or cattle herders from neighbouring countries who move their herds across borders as seasons change. Second, it does not adequately consider the potential impact of climate change on the livestock sector and ranching.

Less than two years from now, Nigeria will hold general elections: Buhari and many state governors are ineligible to compete, having served the maximum number of terms.

If the plan is to survive the change of government, the Buhari administration must deliver concrete, visible results that can win over both herders and farmers, such as new ranches or functional grazing reserves.

They should accommodate this effort, and partners should support them by offering resources to help them succeed. The plan is far from perfect, but it offers the best chance to modernise Nigeria’s inefficient livestock sector and quell the herder-farmer conflict that undermines the stability of Africa’s most populous country.


Interim Vice President & Program Director, Africa
Senior Adviser, Nigeria