Print options

June 10, 2011

Water Scarcity Root of Darfur Conflict

by Lisa Schlein

The conflict in Western Sudan's Darfur region erupted more than eight years ago.  It has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced an estimated two million people.  Disputes over scarce water and grazing land between black African farmers and Arab pastoralist communities triggered the war.  Lack of access to water remains one of the major drivers of the ongoing conflict in Darfur.   An international conference in Khartoum at the end of June will focus on the critical issue of water and how the equitable use and management of this limited resource can help build peace in this troubled region.

When people in developed countries want water, they turn on the tap.

When people in Darfur want water, they have to search far and wide for it.

A UN video shows women and children walking long distances through the arid desert to fetch water in Darfur.  They wait in lengthy lines at the communal well to fill their jerry cans with water for their drinking and washing needs.  This process is repeated every three or four days.

According to the United Nations, one person uses nearly 400 liters of water per day, in the world's wealthiest countries.  In Darfur, 400 liters of water is shared by 20 people.

Mohamed Yonis is Deputy Joint Special Representative of the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur.

"Water is one of the main root causes of this conflict," said Yonis.  "There is a need to address this issue and we do believe that water will serve as an instrument for peace."  

The United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) has been in Darfur for three and one half years.  Yonis says well managed and equitably distributed water resources can ensure sustainable peace for the people in Darfur.  

"Water we believe is life and we believe it could contribute to the initiatives that the UN is making in terms of trying to reach peace with the people of Darfur," added Yonis.  

The United Nations is mediating Sudan peace negotiations in Doha, Qatar. But, a political solution remains elusive.  The world body is hoping for better results from the Water Conference it is organizing jointly with the Government of Sudan at the end of the month.

The conference will seek $1.5 billion from donors to support 56 water projects over the next six years.  These projects will focus on rebuilding the water infrastructure devastated by conflict and neglect.  They will introduce new technologies and systems for managing water, preparing for drought and helping farmers adapt to climate change.

Robin Bovey, the Sudan Program Manager for the UN Environment Program, says providing water in the Sahel is difficult because there is not much of it.    He calls managing water resources a massive undertaking that cannot be done in isolation.  

"We are presently setting up drought committees in camps," said Bovey.  "There will be another drought.  I mean there will be droughts that occur again.  This is just something that happens on a cyclical basis.  But, where you have population shifts, you have to make sure that people are prepared."  

Nils Kastberg, the representative for the UN Children's Fund for Sudan, says getting access to that water requires peace.  And peace can best be achieved on the local level.

"If we put a well and that leads to different groups of people fighting over access to that water, than we are contributing to conflict," added Kastberg.  "If, instead, we can use the access to water as a way for establishing dialogue between different groups, so that through that dialogue we can provide, for instance, access to water, but at the same time get the dialogue going that is so needed, then we are constructing peace from the local level."

But, aid agencies agree these peace initiatives ultimately will lead nowhere without cooperation from the Sudanese government.  They are urging the government to provide services equally to all people in Darfur and to grant them freedom of movement so they can distribute essential relief and care.  

They believe the best prospects for peace lie with local communities, not with the Central government.  They say people are tired of fighting.  They want to trade their goods.  They want access to markets and water.  

And this, aid workers say, is prompting many communities to conclude their own peace agreements. If this process grows and spreads from village to village, they say, these local agreements could translate into a significant regional-wide peace for Darfur.