Aerial view of flooded Jubba ValleyBy: Bazi Bussuri Sheikh

Water is said to hit humans at a profoundly different level than other resources. Water experts argue that people are willing to do horrible things to each other, but they do not willingly turn off each other’s water. Water knows no political boundaries. Water, unlike land, is hard to “capture”, it flows and countries have a lot of reasons for cooperating over water that flows between nations. Somalia’s Juba and Shabelle Rivers are the only perennial and trans-boundary Rivers in the country but two-thirds of the river basins are located outside Somalia, mostly in Ethiopia. However, there are no agreements and tentative arrangements between the two countries on the utilisation of the Jubba and Shabelle rivers. The aim of this piece to encourage the two countries initiate joint project to create sufficient institutional capacity (e.g., treaties) to enhance the hydro-resilience or their ability to absorb change without negative consequences. Water cooperation normally forges people-to-people or expert to expert and as a peacemaking strategy it can create shared regional identities and institutionalise cooperation on issues larger than water.

Implementing these measures will be daunting due to the historical disputes and military conflicts between the two countries. There was in fact an opportune moment for the two nations to effectively reconcile and cooperate, especially the first five years of Zenawi government. Initially, the Ethiopian government has undertaken positive initiatives such as the well treatment of Somali refugees that crossed to Ethiopian borders (still happening) and non-interference of the internal politics. This was an effective de-escalating gesture as the ordinary Somalis who crossed the border interacted with their Ethiopian counterparts. This helped break down the negative images, stereotypes that existed and such transformative experience could have expanded beyond individuals to eventually whole societies in the region. Unfortunately, from 1996 Zenawi government took the wrong path by adopting an ambiguous foreign policy towards Somalia. Most political analysts agree that the government in Addis opted for a weak Somali state which is completely dependent on Ethiopian Support. On the surface, it may seem the obvious and logical thing to do with your old enemy, but in reality it does not work and historically proven to be counterproductive and impractical.

A country can only rise by lifting another country. There is an Ethiopian saying of “The same water never runs into the same river” meaning no moment in time is ever the same and the past is gone. The past taught both nations that each side cannot defeat the other and also made them acknowledge their positive interdependence as each side’s goals are tied together in such a way that the chance of one side attaining its goal is increased by the probability of the other side successfully attaining its goal. One of the main wisdom builders learn from building a strong wall is that for the big stone to be stable and strong you need a smaller stone to hold, otherwise the wall will fall. Similarly bigger countries around the world need to appreciate the importance of smaller countries. This is an area where the big African countries failed to acknowledge, whilst the Europeans understood the importance of the smaller countries within the European Union. There will be no freedom for one country if all countries in the region fail to understand their mutual dependence.

Getting back to our main subject of addressing fair water sharing and management, we need not to wait until the conflict in the region ends. We rather need to use fair water sharing and management as the route to create the right conditions for peace and prosperity to emerge in region. Ethiopia in this case must act with modesty and be the driving force towards water cooperation between the two countries. We must follow the Example of water cooperation between Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. Senegal as the most upstream state was a driving force towards cooperation and joint water management of Senegal River and this proved to be successful and complementary.   The dams built were jointly owned by the three member states and this satisfied their multiple interests. Similarly the two countries (Ethiopia and Somalia) that share Juba and Shabelle Rivers need to pursue similar route wholeheartedly to revive the peaceful coexistence the region has enjoyed during pre-colonial period. Historically, the pre-colonial period, the Horn region and East African Swahili were buzzing with trade and the volume of regional intra-trade was very high.

There are many factors that lead to a success in water cooperation between riparian countries and the main factors include:

  1. Genuine Participatory Approach

The words such as “Inclusive, Participation or people driven” are used as buzz-words with no actual application in development projects. But once genuinely applied in joint water cooperation projects, it is the most effective way to build a strong organisational forms of regional cooperation. Water management is 10% water management and 90% people management and listening to one another is a key to this approach. This meaning listening to stakeholders such as local river users, traditional leaders and local governments as they have indigenous knowledge gained through trial and error for centuries. The most dramatic results always happen when ideas are combined (Modern + Old) and this is what produced some of history’s breakthroughs. Many development experts blamed failure to listen the ordinary people for their project failure. Below is a talk by Ernesto Sirolli who worked in many African countries including Somalia explaining how one project they carried out in Zambia’s Zambezi River failed and the way forward.

  1. The Media Must Play a Supportive Role

The mainstream media normally hype and inflame the water conflicts and phrases like “Water wars” makes for a great eye-catching headline. But the problem is the mass media base their arguments on an appeal to emotion, rather than on fact. Therefore the media, just as any other actor in conflict, must be aware of the consequences of their actions in the hope that they will ultimately alleviate tension, rather than exacerbate it. The media can play an important role in the trust building process by using news reporting as a way to increase the value of established functional trust while simultaneously encouraging the parties not to violate that trust.

One relevant approach is the media adopting peace journalism, in which reporters draw on the insights of Water cooperation dialogue assessment and resolution to try to better explain the interests of each side and the conflict dynamics. Media outlets can be a vital part of this process, spreading information about the water treaty agreement and the benefits of it in the attempt to get people to understand and embrace the agreements.

  1. Political Will


Politicians at local, national and regional level must show and demonstrate real desire for fair water sharing and management between the riparian countries. They should not use water conflicts to maintain internal cohesion especially when they are facing other domestic problems and must reduce red tape that hinders the project. The recent Egypt and Ethiopia water dispute showed that both leaders were expressing unnecessary psychological war of words. Good leaders demonstrate courage when living with their value even when faced with lack of consensus. The International law principals relating to global water management are based on Universal values and self-same values are embodied in religions around the world. For example, the international law principles reconcile with the Islamic understanding that water is a gift of Allah and hence all creatures have the right to drink, that water should be apportioned equitably for other users and no one has the right to withhold surplus water from others.

Finally, it is vital that those wishing to transform or resolve Horn region conflict, to acknowledge the past, and take into account the effects past imperialist policies continue to have on today’s post-colonial societies. For those concerned about the possibility of future strong Somali State will strike its neighbours, be assured that it will not do so.   This is not due to fear or accepting defeat, but an acknowledgement of the interdependency and interconnectedness between the neighbouring countries. Therefore dismantling your enemy when it is weak does not work and has un-intended consequences. History has shown how counterproductive the Morgenthau Plan for post war Germany was. This was a draconian plan to dismantle Germany and make them impossible to threaten or strike again. This has failed horribly and the US government switched policies and took different line. This gave way to Marshal Plan and this is what most development literature writes about as it is the bit everyone likes to remember. For more details how far the plan was implemented and why we have forgotten to remember it, listen to this BBC Radio4 program

As Gandhi has reminded us: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for some people’s greed.   One of the problem is the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life where they don’t belong and this remains one of the most significant development of our time. The only way to safety is to follow the advice given to us by our African ancestors and that is “Cross the river in crowd and the Crocodile won’t eat you”.   It should not only be the water that flows freely in the river Basins of the Horn region, but also trust, benefits and values. Ordinary people in the region are really tired of waiting for the lasting peace they have dreamt for decades.

Bazi Bussuri Sheikh