Rivers, the most important source of freshwater available for human use and the lifelines of many impoverished nations in Africa whose primary economy is agriculture, are increasing becoming under stress. In general, internationally shared rivers particularly those in dry climate regions could be a source of conflict or a reason for cooperation between countries sharing them. Second half of last century, it was experienced that the concerns relating to the use of international water are becoming increasingly more important and complex. Water, a basin human necessity on all aspects of human life is a scarce resource in the Horn of African region where the Juba and Shabelle River Basins are geographically located (see Figure 1). Examining the physical and developmental aspects of the two rivers in a way to analyze the resulting hydropolitics and the looming water conflicts, this paper presents some aspects of interaction between Somalia and Ethiopia over these common river systems.

Physical Aspects

Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia occupy parts of the Juba and Shabelle River Basins in the Horn of Africa. In contrary to previous estimations [1], the total drainage area of the two basins was recently estimated to 805 100 sq. km
[2]. Running a distance of about 1500 km, the Shabelle rises in the Ethiopian Highlands, where annual rainfall exceeds 1000 mm. Flowing generally south-easterly direction; the Shabelle River passes through an arid land in eastern region of Ethiopia [3] cutting wide valleys in southern Somalia. The river does not normally enter the Indian Ocean, but into a depression area, where it is finally lost in the sand in southern Somalia. Only with exceptionally heavy rains does the Shabelle River break through to join the Juba and thus succeed in reaching the ocean. With an average annual rainfall of 455 mm and much higher potential evaporation, mean annual runoff of the Shabelle River at Belet-Weyne is 2 384 million m3. Over 90% of the runoff are generated by catchments within Ethiopia. As the river crosses the existing international border between Ethiopia and Somalia, the Somali City of Belet-Weyne is the most important point where the river flow and its water quality could be observed in Somalia. The river has a high saline content even during high flows.

Like the Shabelle, the Juba River originates from the Ethiopian Highlands, where three large tributaries, the Gestro, the Genale and Dawa meet near the border with Somalia to form the Juba River. The rainfall at the source reach 1500 mm/y, dramatically decreasing southwards and the mean is 550 mm. Luuq, a Somali town, is the most important point to observe the Juba River as it crosses the border. The Juba, which enters the Indian Ocean at Kismayo City, has a total length of 1100 km, 550 km of which in Somalia. The mean annual runoff at Luuq is 6 400 million m3; Ethiopia again contributes over 90 %. Kenya, as there are no tributaries originating there, does not normally contribute to the Juba, and has no access to the main river thus any significant interests.

The Shabelle is larger in size and longer in distance than the Juba, but these did not lead the Shabelle to be larger in runoff due to climatic and geological conditions. As Somalia's most water resources exist in these rivers, runoff contributions by catchments in Somalia are normally minimal.

Developmental Aspects

In upstream areas of Ethiopia, there are few developments based on the two rivers' water resources. In 1988, Ethiopia completed the Melka Wakana hydroelectric project on the upper reaches of the Shabelle. Ethiopia has now built another large dam on the Shabelle for irrigation and hydropower generation. Due to the very narrow arable alluvial plains, there are few permanent agricultural settlements along the Shabelle River inside Ethiopia.

As the two rivers supply the Somalia's rice bowl and support important economic areas in southern Somalia, several agricultural development projects have been implemented based on the water resources of the two rivers. Irrigation projects that were implemented or planned on the Juba River include: Juba Sugar Project (JSP), often known as Mareerey, irrigating sugarcane near Jilib; Mugaambo Rice Irrigation Project near Jamame, using run-of-the-river via canal; Fanole Dam Project, multipurpose dam development for irrigation, hydropower generation and flood mitigation, located near Jilib; Arare Banana Irrigation Project, Jamame; Bardere Dam Project (BDP), the largest ever planned but unimplemented development project, which will be discussed below.

No major dam development was built on the Shabelle River, but those agriculture activities along the Shabelle River are many and intensively use much of the available water. Off-stream facility with storage capacity of 200 million m3 was build near Jowhar. Another dam which would store 130 - 200 million m3, was proposed upstream of Jowhar. Several agricultural areas exist near Mogadishu.

Hydropolitical Aspects

Historical Conflicts and Current Tensions

The relations between Ethiopia and Somalia were complicated particularly in view of their long history, which is full of animosity, mistrust, conflict and border dispute, which resulted from the demarcations by the European Colony during 19 and 20 centuries. During that period, Ethiopia played a key role in the colonial division of the Somali Plateau into five areas. These tense relations resulted at least two military wars in 1964 and 1977. The relations have also been deteriorating since the overthrow of the two countries' dictators in 1991. Since 1996, several times Ethiopia has been criticized its repeatedly military and political interventions in Somalia, a country lacking a central government since 1991. In August 2000, when Ethiopian Prime Minister attended the inauguration of rebirth of the Somali Government, many people looked upon it as a new era for Ethio-Somali relations, but this hope was dashed continuously since then. The transitional national government of Somalia (TNG) tried a number of times, with no encouraging results, to normalize the uneasy relations between them and Ethiopia. The ongoing international war against terrorism led by USA, Ethiopian Government officially said that there are terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda Network inside Somalia, which the TNG strongly denies. It is certain that these unfavorable relations will adversely affect the future required cooperation for the development of these shared rivers. The two countries have in the past never discussed agreements or joint commission for the utilization of the shared rivers.

Shabelle Development Projects in Ethiopia

During 1950s, there was a large scale Shabelle Development Scheme planned in Ethiopia, which is not implemented. Ethiopian plans in late 1970s towards development of the Shabelle River in most upstream areas for irrigation concerned Somalia. Resulted from its national policy of food self-sufficiency, Ethiopia has, since 1991, gone into a process of developing water resources. Taking advantage of Somalia's deep political crisis, Ethiopia started building large dams on the Shabelle River. Existing and planned dams on the river in Ethiopia function also as a political weapon for its rival downstream riparian. As many activities in southern Somalia, where the two river supply, depend mainly on this river's water resources, unilateral developments that Ethiopia currently carries out will severely impact on Somalia both in terms of economy and environment. Actions reflect and imply existing policies and perhaps the unilateral Ethiopian actions are based on its previous argument saying that it is the sovereign right of any riparian state, in the absence of an international agreement, to proceed unilaterally with the develop-ment of shared water resources within its territory. These new Ethiopian dams on the Shabelle will exacerbate the silent border dispute between the two countries.

Juba Valley Development in Somalia

The need to regulate the Juba River was recognized as early as the 1920s by the Italian colonial administration in Somalia. Since then and particularly after the independence in 1960, the Juba and Shabelle valleys became the focus of country's economic development. The largest ever-planned water development project was however Bardere Dam Project (BDP) launched during 1980s on the Juba River near the town of Bardere. It would fully utilize the river water. Regarded as a vital step towards food self-sufficiency and received priority in development planning, the BDP is intended for flood mitigation, irrigation development and hydropower generation. It would irrigate about 175 000 ha of agricultural land and supply power to reduce the cost of petroleum imports. The BDP was economically and technically motivated but politically failed. The two political factors that played important role were: (1) the dictatorial regime which Somalia had at the time of project appraisal and the deteriorating political situation of the country during the 1980s, which resulted the ongoing civil war, became a major hinder for the project development. The erupted civil war in 1991 interrupted and dismissed the entire project; (2) strong opposition from upstream co-basin country of Ethiopia impacted the project, as it argued that the river crosses disputed land and has no agreement on the utilization of its waters. Because of the Ethiopian opposition, the size of the dam has been reduced to irrigate only 50 000 ha.

The Role of the Rivers in Somalia's Economic Development

The Juba and Shabelle Rivers are an important resource base for Somalia, but there are growing fears that these rivers may impoverish the nation they would set on the path to prosperity, because of water scarcity and upstream activities. Somalia lacks significant alternatives to the two rivers as long as water development for agricultural productions are concerned. Current as well as traditional socio-economic activities in southern Somalia are strongly based on the availability of water in the two rivers, and without the guaranteed access to water the fertile areas between the rivers would have no value. Water resources in the two rivers are strongly linked to the survival of the Somali national economy as well as its social and environmental well-being, thus the security of the nation. Institutional structures and capacity for water affairs are currently totally absent in Somalia. Water infrastructures that have been set up for irrigation were also destroyed during the civil war.

International Legal Perspectives

In international rivers, there are several conflicting theories favoring either upstream or downstream countries. A move to reconcile them and resolve the alarming crisis in shared freshwater resources; the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Convention on the Law of Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses in 1997. This Convention, which is not yet formally ratified and thus not operational, encourages cooperation in order to address equitable, reasonable and non-harmful utilization of the international freshwaters. Many argue that this new legal instrument is too weak to meditate disputing basin states over shared water resources.

Growing Water Scarcity and Looming Water Conflict

Considering the possible and potential future water development plans and taking into account the limited amount of water, the water resources in the two rivers will unlikely be able to fulfil the sum of all demands by the basin countries in the future. Potential disputes over the shared rivers are therefore likely to rise in response to political stability and desire of economic development. This may result competition over the utilization of scarce water in the rivers which together with the current and historical relations between the two basin countries may lead to international conflict, shifting then the problem from water sharing to national security. However, the factors that increase the risk of future water conflict include severity of the water scarcity in the riparian countries; historical conflicts and current misunder-standings; relative economic strength and military power and; growing population.


In both basins, Somalia is a vulnerable end user located in downstream area, which is the least favorable position to be in Hydropolitical terms, as the upstream basin country, Ethiopia, can theoretically divert and pollute the water in the rivers. This makes Somalia to be permanently very dependent upon the actions taken by Ethiopia. Although the issue of the Juba and Shabelle Rivers is hidden and powerful one that could explode at any time in the future, no negotiations could be initiated before addressing and solving other more fundamental causes of the historical conflicts and the current tensions. In view of region's current political conditions as well as the historical facts, it is unlikely to realize the desperately needed cooperation and future water conflict seems to be inevitable and it may also turn to be another layer of international conflict before the mid of the century, if nothing is done.

As these shared waters will play a key role in future relations between Ethiopia and Somalia, the desperate need to initiate cooperation through dialogue based on mutual security is significant and trust needs to be established. The only assurance that no harm is done to the interests of any party lies in the process of collaboration through negotiation, and a useful way to initiate and sustain dialogue is to seek opportunities for mutual benefits. One opportunity that demands political commitments but could be explored is to go into regional economic integration based on water through securing a reliable access to the sea for which Ethiopia desperately needs in exchange to undisturbed river flows for Somalia.


[1] According to NWC (1989), the Shabelle River Basin, shared by Ethiopia and Somalia, is about 307,000 sq. km, more than half within Ethiopia, while the Juba River Basin is 233,000sq. km, 65% in Ethiopia, 30% in Somalia and 5% in Kenya.

[2] A study updating international rivers of the world (Wolf et al., 1999), gives the combined area of the Juba and Shabelle Rivers Basins to 805 100 km2, of which Ethiopia occupies 45.7%; Somalia 27.5% and Kenya 26.8%.

[3] Inhabitants of eastern part of Ethiopia are ethnically Somalis. This region was internationally known as Ogaden but in Somalia it is referred as Somali Western, while it is recently named as Region 5 in Ethiopia.

Figure 1. The Juba and Shabelle River Basins in the Horn of Africa


The Case of the Juba & Shabelle
River Basins in the Horn of Africa

Abdullahi Elmi Mohamed,
BSc, MSc, LicTech. PhD-can.


Extended Abstract