Access to water is essential to human life, yet water is a scarce resource. According to a 2016 World Bank study, 1.6 billion people live in countries that are water scarce, a number that may double in the next 20 years. Water management is inherently complex because it crosses physical, disciplinary, and jurisdictional boundaries and has political, economic, technological, environmental, and social components. Growing water resource scarcity and variability, fueled by climate change, coupled with increased demands for water due to economic and population growth has the potential to pose a threat to regional and global security. The Middle East and Africa face a particularly challenging set of water-management issues.
In February 2018, a number of headlines declared a looming "water war" in Africa over Ethiopia’s construction of a $6.4 billion dam that Egypt believes could reduce the country’s access to the Nile River’s water, on which its economy depends: "In Africa, War Over Water Looms As Ethiopia Nears Completion Of Nile River Dam" (National Public Radio, NPR) and "The ‘Water War’ Brewing Over the new River Nile Dam" (BBC News). Despite intermittent threats between the two countries during the construction of the soon-to-be completed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), war has not yet come to pass. Recent progress in ongoing talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan (despite significant hurdles remaining) suggest that the case may in fact illustrate the opportunities of water diplomacy to be a potential driver of stability as much as it demonstrates the myriad challenges of transnational water management.
The use of diplomacy to peacefully resolve water-based tensions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to be a driver of stability in the region. Increased regional stability is an outcome that aligns with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states’ national security interests and the goals of NATO Strategic Direction South. A less volatile MENA and sub-Saharan Africa would have a number of benefits to both, African and NATO countries, including lessening the flow of migrants and refugees. Moreover, supporting water-diplomacy efforts in the region dovetails directly with NATO Strategic Direction South’s primary aims of developing peaceful and friendly relations and promoting conditions of stability and well-being in the MENA, Sahel, and sub-Saharan African regions.