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Transboundary Water Bodies and Conflict in Africa

Targeting and investing in areas of greatest need will likely increase the impact of those funds, potentially reducing conflict in the most vulnerable zones and improving the quality of water for those nearby.

June 25, 2013
Carleigh Snead

“In the United States, water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time. It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares, cares about you and your welfare. Water is that issue.”

    - Hillary Clinton, Former Secretary of State


International water cooperation was the theme of this year’s World Water Day. This message comes at a time of increased pressure to manage the political complications with the 60 transboundary rivers in continental Africa, which serve three-quarters of the continent’s population. The World Bank has initiated the Cooperation in International Waters in Africa(CIWA) project to guide African nations seeking to address the limitations that competition for international waters imposes on their capacity for growth and development.


The Nile River Basin is one of the most critical transboundary water bodies in Africa, serving 11 countries, eight of which are depicted in the map below: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. This region is of special interest for two reasons: The first is the high degree of water resource interdependence between these countries, and the second is the historically high rate of armed conflict among them, within and across borders. Some observers have hypothesized that a causal relationship may exist between water resource interdependence and conflict.


In this post, I assess the plausibility of this claim and discuss the potential for water-related aid projects to reduce conflict by alleviating the tensions stemming from the competition for shared water resources.

The map below displays violent conflict data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED) overlaid with all World Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB) project locations in the water supply and sanitation sector. The area along Lakes Albert and Edward of the Nile River Basin, and Lakes Tanganyika and Kivu of the Congo River Basin reveals where the epicenter of violence is located. This densely populated region—at the heart of several contentious political boundaries—is also home to many AfDB funded activities that seek to alleviate water resource problems. By comparison, the World Bank has a smaller footprint.

Water and conflict in central africa

Another important feature of the map is the marked lack of conflict surrounding Lake Victoria, situated at the borders of three countries—Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Here, a very recent proliferation of World Bank project activities stands in contrast to the absence of AFDB activities along Lake Victoria’s boundary.

Finally, the map suggests that donors allocate more  water and sanitation aid resources to the areas that depend most heavily on transboundary water resources.

Targeting and investing in areas of greatest need will likely increase the impact of those funds, potentially reducing conflict in the most vulnerable zones and improving the quality of water for those nearby. We can see that the AfDB’s efforts to some extent align with this allocation strategy: they place virtually all of their projects in the region at the two largest water sources, both at the intersection of several nations. The World Bank appears to take a different tack, implement large projects in areas of dense conflict: they site nearly all of their water and sanitation activities where Uganda, DRC, and Rwanda meet.

Overall, the spatial distribution of World Bank and African Development Bank water and sanitation project activities does not suggest poor coordination between these two institutions. Quite the opposite: this may be an example of reasonably effective efforts to minimize duplication and achieve a spatial division of labor.

As a member of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), the AidData Center for Development Policy (ACDP) at the College of William and Mary is engaging students to use geospatial analysis and targeted research to best approach answering key questions in international development. Putting the students’ skills to the test, ACDP began its inaugural #MapOff Competition. Each student developed their own research question pertaining to a specific challenge in international development, and then leveraged AidData’s geocoded datasets to create a map that illustrated their research findings. The following blog post is from one of AidData’s finalists, William and Mary student Carleigh Snead.

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Carleigh Snead is an AidData Research Assistant at the College of William and Mary. Carleigh is currently serving as an AidData Summer Fellow in Nepal.