Over the past decade, it has been strongly emphasised that fresh water is a precious resource. It is, therefore, no surprise that conflicts have arisen around it, as seen with other raw materials. Recent news reports have brought attention to the conflict between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan regarding the construction of the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (or GERD), which would threaten the water supply of both Egypt and Sudan.
This is not an isolated problem, as the United Nations counts 263 surface waters and some 300 aquifers (groundwater) that cross one or more borders. For an estimated 60% of these international basins, cooperative policies between the affected countries have yet to be established. This has led to seven conflicts during the 20th century. While any conflict is regrettable, it is encouraging that over 300 agreements have been signed during that same period, thereby safeguarding the interests of both upstream and downstream areas. In addition to guaranteeing the rights of the parties involved, this often resulted in an additional benefit: improved water management. To enforce these newly obtained water rights, information is needed, which requires measurements. The information obtained from these measurements can in turn be used to optimise water management.
As most coverage of conflicts around water rights (diplomatic or violent) comes from outside Europe, there is a danger that many people will see this as a distant issue. However, this could not be further from the truth. Belgium has five major basins, with the Meuse and the Scheldt forming the largest part. The Ijzer basin in Flanders is also of considerable importance. These three basins originate in France, with the Meuse and Scheldt basins flowing through to neighbouring countries. To date, there have been no major problems guaranteeing a sufficient flow rate. However, this is not beyond possibility, as Wallonia supplies 55% of Belgium's drinking water, while only comprising 37% of the total population. Conversely, Flanders imports about 40% of its drinking water from Wallonia. This has led to the development of a policy that seeks to reduce this Flemish dependence through better management of pollution and discharges into Flemish waters.
The impact of pollution or navigability due to factors outside the country's borders has been felt several times in recent years. As recently as April 2020, an accidental discharge from a sugar refinery in France caused the eutrophication (an increase in minerals and nutrients causing explosive growth, resulting in oxygen scarcity) of the Scheldt, leading to major losses of fish. Fortunately, quick action was taken to avoid a total catastrophe. Despite the swift actions and the good cooperation between the many organisations, 90 km of the Scheldt River has been wiped out by this incident.
On the other hand, there is also a history of guaranteed access to Antwerp's port by the Netherlands. Since the 16th century (when Antwerp fell into Spanish hands), the Netherlands has tried several times to limit access to the port of Antwerp (successfully or not), be it by closure or increased taxation. Despite existing treaties, this remains a sensitive issue. Not least because navigability for the new and larger vessels requires a significant amount of dredging, which in turn has an impact on the environment. The fact that a more restricted accessibility of the port of Antwerp has a competitive advantage for the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam naturally also plays a part in this complex story.
Owing to good diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries, existing treaties and the European Union's Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/06/EC), it is unlikely that any major conflict will occur, however this does reflect the political and economic importance of water management.
It can be concluded that international cooperation is necessary towards achieving an optimal result for the collective basin. This is brought to the fore when the interests of territories/states belonging to the same basin are in conflict with one another.
Author: Alain Ducheyne