Thursday, July 2, 2020

For those against purchase of ‘air assets’: a water war is waiting down the road

Maybe it would be unseemly for either the finance minister or defence minister to tell parliament that a war that can happen any day now but the most rudimentary conflict analysis shows that a concrete war scenario is on the cards.

Southern Africa is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world and there is substantial military scholarship that says future wars will be fought not over territory but water. The situation has been compounded by climate change and we are looking at a future when water will be as scarce as to be the most precious commodity in the world and more precious than all the gem diamonds in Jwaneng.

In his 2020/21 budget speech, the Minister of Finance and economic Development, Dr. Thapelo Matsheka, announced that the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security has been allocated the second largest share (P1.94 billion) of the budget.

“The bulk of the proposed budget will go to the Botswana Defence Force for air assets, vehicles, as well a defence and communication equipment,” Matsheka said.

Some, including both MPs and members of the public, have interpreted “air assets” to mean jet fighters and last week the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security, Kagiso Mmusi, had to put out a statement explaining that “the amount allocated for air assets will not be used for purchasing any aircraft but will instead go towards radar operation systems upgrades, integrated landing systems, etc which are also air assets.”

The fact of the matter though is that Botswana needs more assets and especially fighter aircraft to ready itself for a hydro-political conflict that lies somewhere down the road. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has stated that this conflict is “likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country.” The UN body has identified “possible flashpoints” as “the Nile, Niger, Volta and Zambezi basins.” The BBC has reported that there is a “potential water war” in Southern Africa involving Botswana, Namibia and Angola.”

“The River Cuito which begins in Angola before heading through the Caprivi Strip in Namibia and ending in the marshlands of the Okavango Delta in Botswana runs through an area that is no stranger to tensions and conflict between neighbours,” the British news channel added.

The UN has proposed monitoring worldwide reserves of drinking water and establishing agreements for the use of water. There is such agreement (the Nile Agreement) between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the sharing of the waters of the Nile River. Even with such agreement in place however, the likelihood a water war between Egypt and Ethiopia is very high. While Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism in his brother’s administration, Tshekedi Khama stated that despite a tripartite agreement between Botswana, Namibia and Angola, the latter was possibly undertaking agricultural projects which were diverting the normal flow of water from its highlands into the Okavango Delta. The Chobe, a tributary of the Zambezi, has caused tension between Botswana and Zimbabwe. This is despite the existence of the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM) Protocol which allows all the countries in the region to tap water from the Zambezi. In 2013, Zimbabwe objected to Botswana’s plans to abstract some 30 cubic metres from the Chobe River for an irrigation scheme to feed the Pandamatenga Farms as well as for domestic water supply.

In an interview four years ago, the immediate former Gabane-Mankgodi MP, Major General Pius Mokgware, said that countries in Southern Africa should be particularly worried about the prospects of a water war. In 1995, Ismail Serageldin, an Egyptian who was vice-president of the World Bank, made as chilling an analysis about the SADC water situation and what it means.

“Conflicts are inevitable given that most of the river systems in the region are already utilized and are interconnected ignoring political boundaries,” Serageldin said.

Mokgware, a former member of the BDF high command, did actually identify a gap in BDF’s stock of air assets by stating that the army would do well to buy attack helicopters and not jet fighters.

“A helicopter can do things that a jet fighter can’t do,” he said. “It can take off and land just about anywhere. A helicopter can carry both men and their equipment to a problem area.”

The example he gave with regard to the latter point is of a helicopter lifting eight soldiers and Land Rover jeep to an area, offloading both and flying back while the men get in the jeep to execute their mission.

“You can’t do that with a jet which cannot land and take off anywhere,” said Mokgware adding that a jet fighter requires sophisticated landing areas and ground support systems which Botswana doesn’t have nearly enough of. “How many airstrips do we have where a jet can land and take off? The other thing is that jets are very expensive to maintain and their fuel is also very expensive.”

While acknowledging that jet fighters may use the major airports that Botswana has, Mokgware noted that a problem would arise when it has to provide support in areas that don’t have ground support systems.

“The purpose of a jet is to intercept other aircraft as well as to destroy fixed and moving targets,” said the former Gabane-Mankgodi MP who, post-retirement and before politics, joined the University of Botswana as a security studies lecturer.

According to a BDF source, the money used to buy one jet fighter can buy two attack helicopters. Adding to what Mokgware said, the latter says that compared to jet fighters, attack helicopters are easier to manipulate mid-air and take much less time to prepare for take-off.

Ironically, there is an “Africa Rising” dimension to the continent’s water woes. As their economies grow, African countries need more and more of a commodity there is little of and that has to be shared with neighbours. Ethiopia is building a 6000 megawatt hydroelectric dam on the banks of the Nile River, near the Sudan border. The dam is Africa’s largest and one of the largest in the world Egypt fears that it will lose 20 to 30 percent of its share of Nile water and nearly a third of the electricity generated by its Aswan High Dam. Some 85 million Egyptians rely on the Nile for almost all of their water needs. A colonial-era treaty gave Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metre average annual flow, while Sudan received only 18.5 billion cubic meters. Another 10 billion cubic meters is lost to evaporation in Lake Nasser, which was created by Egypt’s Aswan High Dam in the 1970s. Downstream nations like Ethiopia, which were not catered for by the British-origin treaty, now want their fair share of the water. However, Egypt wants every country that lays claim to the Nile to defer to the 1959 treaty. Once before, the powerful North African nation, which gets billions of dollars in military aid from the United States, has threatened war if the water-sharing formula is altered.


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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.