Through the Water Lens: Instability Risks 2015

New instability and conflict is possible in Ethiopia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe in 2015, with continuing instability in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria, and an increased potential for an Iranian nuclear deal.

High Risk of Conflict Between Egypt and Ethiopia

In 2015, Ethiopia likely intends to begin storing water at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Negotiations are ongoing, but appear unlikely to reach a satisfactory conclusion before this event without further concessions on the Ethiopian side, significantly raising the risks of conflict this year which would most likely involve one or more of Ethiopia’s neighbors, such as South Sudan, Eritrea, or Somalia. Short of further concessions by Ethiopia, there is a chance that construction delays could occur that could buy more time for negotiations.

However, we continue to assess that a win-win negotiated outcome is achievable on the Nile. The key elements of this would include some reasonable measure of guarantee on how Nile flows will be managed, and supported by transparent verification measures, such as sharing of real-time flow data and live video feeds of construction and water storage and release activities.

Growing Risk of a Coup in Venezuela

Years of economic mismanagement have made Venezuela highly vulnerable to low global oil prices and problems stemming from regional drought. Venezuela’s economy is projected to contract by 1.8 percent in 2015 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, while most goods are in increasingly short supply. An ongoing drought places significant pressure on Venezuela’s national electric grid, which is heavily dependent on hydropower, while the municipal water supply in the capital itself relies heavily on national power supplies. All of these factors likely contributed to a recent Cuban-US rapprochement, as Cuba has relied on Venezuela as a benefactor. We assess these factors are unlikely to lead to significant violent internal conflict, but could facilitate a military coup in 2015, as Maduro is likely incapable of carrying out either needed political changes or a crack-down sufficient to stamp out national discontent.

Potential Humanitarian Crisis in Zimbabwe

The recent appointment of Emmerson Mnangagwa as Vice President in Zimbabwe points to a more hardline approach in dealing with Zimbabwe’s internal problems which include some of the highest population growth rates and corruption levels along with some of the lowest income per capita in the world. This could lead to a humanitarian crisis exported to Zimbabwe’s neighbors in the region which should be prepared for in 2015.

Hardening Sub-national Divides in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria

We see little reason to believe that instability in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria will abate in 2015 and that the emerging sub-national divides in these states will almost certainly harden.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), having reached its peak last year, will continue its decline in 2015 due to coalition strikes and poor governance and resource management. However, the divides that ISIS helped solidify in 2014 will not soon go away, and will likely continue to harden for the foreseeable future. Water shortages played a significant role in the emergence of the Syrian conflict and ISIS early on, and water infrastructure played a key role as both tools and targets of the conflict in 2014. We could further argue that ISIS’s poor resource management was part of the reason it was so aggressive in taking new territory in Iraq to compensate. Having now been pushed back with few other good territorial targets within reach, ISIS may increasingly turn to support from like-minded radicals in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, we expect Bashar al-Assad to remain President in name only, having effectively become a warlord and retaining only a small part of Syria.

Economic factors as well as both Russian and Western incompetence sparked the crisis in Ukraine in 2014. The Russians continue to wrongly believe that the West seeks to undermine Russian power and influence while the West has only gradually come to understand how important it is to consider Russian perceptions of vulnerability. We do not expect to see a resolution to the crisis this year or for Russian relations with the West to improve, and the conflict in Ukraine could easily intensify. Water infrastructure served as both tools and targets of the conflict in 2014 in Crimea and Donetsk and could serve as additional flashpoints in 2015.

Iranian Nuclear Deal More Likely

A long-sought Iranian nuclear deal is more likely in 2015 based largely on economic factors. The easing of sanctions, opportunities to take Russian gas market shares, prospects of western investment, and the effects of drought, are likely weakening the position of regime hardliners making a breakthrough more likely. However, resistance to a deal both from regime hardliners and other regional powers as well as the potential for further regional unrest could still very well kick the nuclear can further down the road.

Growing Turbulence in the Sudans and Yemen

Economic trends and political events point to growing turbulence in the Sudans and Yemen. The Sudans and Yemen have been plagued by recently growing internal conflict as well as limited oil income, which will likely only grow worse in 2015. Each of these countries also stand out as having particularly extreme corruption, low income per capita, and relatively high population growth and urbanization rates that have and will continue to contribute to the overall risks in these countries.

About The Water Fulcrum

The Water Fulcrum seeks to better inform everyone who may be affected by water and other resoure related challenges and help equip them to better manage the often unavoidable conflicts around water. More than that, we seek to show how water issues can be used to leverage results. This mission is not about water, but the water aspects of security at every level–security through the water lens. Follow us on twitter @waterfulcrum or contact us at


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