The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


Stepping Up Co-operation on Transboundary Rivers

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on August 1, 2013

THE GROWING trend of countries seeking to catalyze development through the construction of hydro-electric dams has become a contentious and destabilising issue. This was highlighted by two recent events in two major river basins namely the Nile and the Mekong.

In May 2013, Ethiopia started diverting waters of the Blue Nile in May 2013 to fill the reservoir behind its USD4.7 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia, as one of the world’s poorest countries ranking 173 out of 185 countries in terms of its Human Development Index (HDI) score in 2013, aimed to harness the river and become Africa’s leading power exporter. The dam construction is also an attempt by Ethiopia to assert greater control over its water resources and not be held hostage by Egypt. Egypt has long exercised almost exclusive rights over the use of Nile water by two agreements that it signed with Great Britain in 1929 and with Sudan in 1959 respectively. Upstream countries resented these agreements as it barred them from undertaking large-scale projects without Egypt’s consent and demanded a new deal that would allow them greater share of the Nile water. Egypt however considered such demands as a security threat as it relied on the Nile River for more than 90 per cent of its water needs. Egypt’s uncompromising position on the issue is such that former President Anwar Sadat famously declared in 1979 that “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” In light of Ethiopia’s ongoing dam construction, Egyptian leaders have reportedly discussed buzzing the dam site with fighter jets, destroying the dam by covert military action, and supporting rebel groups fighting the Ethiopian regime.

In Southeast Asia, Laos PDR’s plan to transform itself into the ‘hydroelectric battery of Southeast Asia’ through the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams on the mainstream Mekong River has caused concerns among downstream countries namely Cambodia and Vietnam. These countries worry that such dams could affect the river’s freshwater fishes and livelihoods. Indeed, the Mekong River has been identified as a hotspot for freshwater fishes with over 1,000 species, second only to the Amazon. Notwithstanding their opposition, Laos started the construction of the first dam in Xayaburi Province in November 2012.

Although institutions such as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) have been established to improve co-operation and co-ordination among riparian countries, Ethiopia and Laos’ unilateral pursuit of hydro-electric dam projects highlighted their ineffectiveness. Given rising energy demands due to increasing population growth and expanding economy in both river basins, it is inevitable that more countries would sought to harness the Nile and the Mekong Rivers. However, the continuance of a unilateral approach to such projects could potentially destabilise both river basins. It is therefore important that both the NBI and the MRC promote equitable water sharing among riparian countries. Once this is done, mechanisms related to prior consultation whereby governments mutually decide whether or not projects go forward should be enhanced so as to prevent riparian countries from unilaterally undertaking dam building projects. Such efforts would go a long way in ensuring mutual benefits among riparian countries.

This blog is contributed by Mr PK Hangzo, Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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