Water scarcity and conflict in African river basins: The hydropolitical landscape (Mahlakeng, 2023)

Larry A. Swatuk

Desal Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng, 2023. Water scarcity and conflict in African river basins: The hydropolitical landscape. Earthscan Studies in Water Resources Management. Routledge: London and New York. ISBN: 978-1-032-43243-4 (hbk).£120 (hardback), £35 (ebook).

(URL:  https://www.routledge.com/Water-Scarcity-and-Conflict-in-African-River-Basins-The-Hydropolitical/Mahlakeng/p/book/9781032432434)

Larry A. Swatuk

School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo, Canada & Insitute for Water Studies, University of Western Cape, South Africa. lswatuk@uwaterloo.ca


To cite this Review: Swatuk, L. 2020. Review of "Water scarcity and conflict in African river basins: The hydropolitical landscape", Routledge, 2023, by Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/369-mahlakeng


This book began its life as a PhD thesis successfully defended in 2017. As a PhD thesis, the study asked an interesting question: if Thomas Homer-Dixon’s theory of renewable resource scarcity and acute conflict is true, can cases of impending violent conflict be stifled or offset through the application of the principles of regime theory? Put differently, can conflict be transformed into cooperation by institutional means? To investigate this question, the author looked at three cases of transboundary waters in Africa – the Orange-Senqu River Basin (OSRB); the Nile River Basin (NRB); and the River Niger Basin (RNB). In short, the author believes the answer to be ‘no, institutions will not offset the drivers of conflict’: ‘[T]he continuation of demand, supply, and structural-induced scarcity in the OSRB, NRB, and the RNB … will all contribute to the failure, weakening, collapse, or both [sic] of authoritative institutions that are meant to help societies adapt to scarcity and minimize the potential of violence. This will lead to conflict between the riparian countries…’ (p. 161). Such an alarming conclusion leads the reader to ask, upon what empirical foundation does the author build his findings? Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, given the dire conclusion), the answer is ‘not much’. Typical of the more than 30-year old Homer-Dixon school of environmental catastrophe, the author juxtaposes (weakly substantiated) evidence of (i) increasing population plus (ii) declining water (and related resource) availability equalling (iii) violent conflict. Over the decades, the Homer-Dixon hypothesis has been much discussed and debated across various schools of environmental security. A particularly useful discussion is to be found in Selby, Daoust and Hoffman, Divided Environments (reviewed here https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/345-divided).

One could reasonably expect in a mid-2010s PhD thesis, a deep dive into a highly controversial theory so roundly debated in the literature. Instead, the author presents Homer-Dixon’s theory as an indisputable fact. Similarly, the author’s treatment of river basin organization through the lens of liberal institutionalism is described but not explained. Like a bad joke, what the reader gets is a mildly interesting set-up – Homer-Dixon’s theory says conflict (e.g., pp. 47, 73, 89); liberal regime theory says cooperation (e.g., p.35) – without a satisfying punchline. On page after page the author makes claim after claim regarding the population-environment-conflict nexus but offers no proof. Typical of the Realist-Liberal nexus of environmental conflict theory, this book is full of ‘may’, ‘could’, and ‘might’, that is, incessant speculation regarding what Kaplan described as ‘the coming anarchy’ exactly 30 years ago (e.g., pp. 108, 126, 134). Juxtaposition of facts – e.g. population growth, freshwater availability per capita – is not an explanation of socio-ecological/economic dynamics regarding resource access, use, management, governance. Worse, the claims made in this book derive from what might be termed the ‘first wave of renewable resource wars’ literature, i.e. following Kaplan (1994), Homer-Dixon (1991), Klare (2001), almost all of which was published more than 20 years ago, much of it claiming that there would be water wars by 2025.  As an intellectual exercise, this is alright, but the reader wonders why the author failed to engage with any of the critical environmental security literature even if it, too, was 30 years old, let alone any of the many studies published today.  

To be sure, there is a great deal of sub-national, trans-border conflict across sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations, there are roughly 2.3 million internally displaced people in South Sudan, and nearly 2.4 million refugees from South Sudan. Neighboring Sudan has more than 5 million citizens either internally displaced or on the move to other parts of Africa. In West Africa, violent conflict has spread across much of the Sahel region (for details see Schmidt, 2018; Selby et al., 2022). In Southern Africa, no such violent conflict exists despite massive socio-economic inequalities. Ignoring the socio-economic and socio-political contexts through which these transboundary waters flow, the author chooses instead to focus on inter-state relations (especially river basin organisations, water sharing agreements), deploying macro-data (e.g. population increase, freshwater availability, though, interestingly, there is not one table presenting figures to support these claims) to prove his case. This book reminds me of the film Barton Fink, in which a fictional character moves to Los Angeles to write a filmscript about the plight of the ‘working man’. Zeroed in on his obsession, he fails to see the bigger story begging to be told right in front of him, that the Devil lives next door! In Water Scarcity and Conflict in African River Basins, Mahlakeng hunts and pecks for water wars while the regions he purports to research continue to struggle under the weight of extensive overt and structural violence. Why the obsession with water?

Though seven years have passed since the submission of the thesis, this book, published in 2023, almost perfectly reproduces that document. This leads to startling sentences such as this one: ‘It is estimated that in 2020 water demand will outstrip supply by 93% in the [Southern African] region…’ (p. 49). The author parachutes into the text a grand total of 5 pieces of writing (2 peer-reviewed articles, 1 World Bank Report, 2 news reports) published between 2018 and 2023, each chosen to support the central thesis. This is a serious error (and one wonders why the publisher didn’t flag it as a shortcoming, or the reviewers request more substantial updates), as the author has missed a perfect opportunity to revisit his thesis in the context of the extensive literature that has emerged in the last half-decade regarding environmental security, water conflict and cooperation, water resource developments on the Nile in particular, and the extensive developments of regional cooperation across sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

I so wanted to like this book. I was excited to read it, but disappointed from the first paragraph where the author begins his third sentence with ‘In recent literature’, and then goes on to cite studies from 1999 and 2002. It was basically downhill from there. I cannot recommend this book beyond, perhaps, the author’s yeoman-like descriptions of water regime development in each of the three basins. But even these are readily available via an internet database search and more up to date.



Schmidt, E. (2018). Foreign Intervention in Africa after the Cold War: Sovereignty, Responsibility, and the War on Terror. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Selby, J., Daoust, G., and Hoffman, C. (2022). Divided Environments: An international political ecology of climate change, water and security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Homer-Dixon, T. (1991). On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict. International Security 16(2): 76-116.

Kaplan, R. (1994). The Coming Anarchy. The Atlantic Monthly (February).

Klare, M. (2001). Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. New York: Henry Holt & Co.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Mahlakeng Khosi Mahlakeng
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Larry Swatuk
  • Subject: Transboundary waters, Water politics, Dams
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English