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Israel, Iran and the struggle for water in Africa

The struggle for water in Africa and its motives fuels conflicts between many countries. The conflict between Israel and Iran in this regard indicates the weakness of the African countries on the Red Sea coast and their inability to propose any sort of solution for the problem. Also, this inability to face the issue reflects the bankruptcy of the political path and its high cost in contrast with the attention these countries give to other issues.


If there is a belief that the oil that can be replaced and exchanged for other economic resources has been politicised, then this conviction can clearly be applied to water, making it even more dangerous, as there is no alternative.

Israel’s naval strategy

Water conflicts differ when the dispute is between countries in the region and when another country intrudes, such as Israel. In 1948 and 1949, Israel had no access to the Red Sea. This changed when the peace treaties were signed on February 24, 1949, encouraging Israel to head south and take control of the area where Eilat port was established.

After the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956, the so-called Suez Crisis, Israel gained the privilege to pass through the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba to gain access to Africa and then through the Indian Ocean to Asia. This helped Israel to develop its political, military and economic relations with a number of African countries.

In 1967, Israel declared war against Egypt and occupied Sinai after President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran. In the 1973 war, Egypt took another measure by closing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait and Israel was forced to adopt a naval strategy in which it deployed a fleet capable of facing up to any new threats to important parts of the Red Sea; in particular the southern access into the Indian Ocean near Djibouti. Israel then sent its submarines through the Suez Canal.

It did not stop there; Israel was involved in a clash of political, strategic and economic interests in the Red Sea with the Unites States, European countries and regional players such as Djibouti and Kenya. This situation lasted for several years until the Camp David Accords were signed in 1978 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The treaty stipulated that Israel has the right to pass through the Suez Canal and its access passages in the Gulf of Suez and Mediterranean Sea; the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba were designated open international waterways for Israel to use.

This was stated clearly in Major-General Yakob Amidror’s report published by the Institute for National Security Studies in 2010. He noted Israel’s fear of relationships developing amongst the east African countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, and of them forming a strategic alliance with South Sudan, as well as the fear that Iran’s growing role in supporting other countries in the region would see those countries taking action in alignment with Iranian policies.

The strategic importance of this area to Israel is obvious, as is the economic importance; the Red Sea is an important waterway for Israel’s trade and international presence. As such, Israel has taken all measures possible to reinforce its security presence in places like Ethiopia, which is considered to be a significant strategic country. Its importance to Israel stems from its geographic proximity to the Arab countries and its position overlooking the route of ships sailing to Eilat and the Suez Canal.

The two countries have a close relationship and Ethiopia allows Israel to maintain a military presence there. The government in Tel Aviv has also improved its relations with Kenya and Djibouti and deployed its naval and air forces in response to Iran’s growing presence in east Africa in general, especially in Eritrea.

A confrontation on the water

Due to Africa’s strategic significance in the Middle East, the continent remains central to Israeli strategy and diplomacy. Using all the means at its disposal, Israel has been able to create an Arab vacuum in Africa, ironically with the help of the Arabs themselves following the death of Egypt’s Nasser and the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Iran, meanwhile, established a footing in Sudan and set its sights on the Red Sea, from Bab el-Mandeb Straits in the south to the Suez Canal in the north. It used the routes under its control to supply aid and arms to the Houthis in pre-revolutionary Yemen. The government in Tehran also used the Gulf of Aden near the Horn of Africa to provide hard-line Islamists in Somalia with arms and military equipment.

It is easy to believe that Iran’s penetration of Yemen with rebel support and access to the Somali coast would not have been possible without help from some regional countries, as many across the Horn of Africa are seeking Iranian aid.

The policy followed by Iran is entirely pragmatic. When it aspires to create a strategic outlet for Iranian gas and oil, its inherent ambition is to extend its influence in the Horn of Africa, which is in fact a serious attempt to continue its expansion project in the region which aims mainly to take control of the Red Sea.

Developments in the water conflict

Israel entered Africa through providing aid. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s visit to several African countries in 2009, including some of the Nile Basin countries which have a dispute with Egypt over the water of the Nile, is viewed as fishing in troubled waters.

In Kenya, Lieberman announced that Israel would be providing aid in irrigation and agriculture. His hosts, of course, did not forget the favours that Israel did in helping them fight terrorism.

In Nigeria, one of Africa’s largest, richest and most important countries, Lieberman was able to call on the large group of Israeli businessmen active in the field of agriculture and infrastructure. Nigeria is also considered a prime target for Israeli arms exports. Despite its relative distance from the continent’s major fresh water sources, Israel’s military and intelligence concentration in Nigeria has been used to surround and enclose the Nile Basin countries.

However, the most dangerous issue pushed by Lieberman during his visit was a proposal for the “internationalisation of common rivers”, or the “privatisation of water”, for consideration by the United Nations and World Bank under the pretext of preventing water wars.

Ironically, the World Bank, 34 per cent of whose water and sanitation contracts during the years 2000 to 2010 are suffering from severe difficulties, is the party that announced recently its adoption of the recommendation. The irony lies in the fact that it is tasked with resolving the problems in developing countries by providing loans, resources and projects and yet it is adopting a recommendation to privatise water management.

This recommendation seems to have attracted a number of responses from developing countries; however, they appear to hold a complete disregard for the main challenge of addressing the scarcity and pollution of water. It also comes at a time of water conflict, the worst of which is now over the River Nile.

Solutions for past water crises were achieved in the context of peaceful co-existence to ensure the safety of this vital waterway and to seek ways of cooperation rather than conflict and strife. However, involving water in politics has turned the water from a source of life to a motive for death. Dealing with the water crisis now has become one more amongst the many political challenges facing the region. Indeed, the intervention of Israel and Iran and their influence over the African countries, as well as their attempts to control the Nile and the Red Sea waterways, is turning the crisis into a military issue.

It is clear that the water problems in Africa are not only caused by the scarcity of water, because the scarcity is being manufactured for political reasons; it is mainly a security issue. However, we have come to a late realisation that water security does not appear in absolute terms but reflects the international geopolitical competitions raging around them. Water in Africa is not only an international issue but also an intercontinental conflict.

Translated from al Jazeera net, April 2, 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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