Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River, forming the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe. (Photo/ Ninara)

Ah, Those Sneaky Borders: Climate Change Shapes Africa In Unlikely Ways

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RELATIONS between Rwanda-Burundi have been strained by an unlikely and recurrent point of conflict: a small hill along their common border.

Both countries have claimed the ridge located between the southern district of Gisagara in Rwanda and the northern province of Ngozi in Burundi. The hill is known as Sabanegwa in Rwanda and Sabanerwa in Burundi.

The dispute originated from the River Akanyaru which has been used as a natural border between the two countries changing course and riverbed over the years.

From some reports, the initial shift happened in 1965 following heavy rains, which made the river change course and flow around Sabanerwa, and putting the land in Burundian territory. Siltation and flooding has entrenchedthe river’s re-routing.

The dispute is subject of determination by a joint border demarcation commission, whose urgency is being intensified by the already poor relations between the two countries. Burundian authorities have been accusing Rwanda of backing armed groups fighting the government in Bujumbura, though Rwanda dismisses these charges.

But far from being an isolated case over a little two-kilometre square little hill, the Sabanerwa is a canary in the coalmine of how climate change is already shaping African geopolitics in unlikely ways.

Rivers and lakes make up many of Africas borders, which were drawn up by colonial powers in the late 19th century. Most of those borders still apply today. But because many colonial maps are imprecise, however, there is considerable uncertainty over where exactly the dividing lines run.

And now, climate change is complicating matters, as rivers change course, and lakes recede – or surge.

A similar land dispute flared up in 2006, in the commune of Muyinga, where Rwanda and Burundi both claimed ownership of a valley known as Rufunzo. The valley was created when the River Kagera – called River Nyabarongo in Rwanda’s province of Kigali Rural – changed its course.

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Lake Chad is another dramatic example, whose waters are shared between Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The surface of the lake has shrunk by more than 90% in the past few decades because of reduced inflows, more irrigation farming and more evaporation due to global warming.

When Nigerian farmers settled on land left dry by receding Cameroonian waters, Cameroon appealed to the International Court of Justice and had its case upheld in 2002. The Nigerian settlers had to vacate the newly built villages.

Today, the four riparian states collaborate to preserve the lake and its surroundings in the Lake Chad Basin Commission, writes journalist Frank Krschner-Pelkmann in this article, published in D+C magazine.

In the past century, nearly two-thirds of all international water agreements have been signed in Africa (94 out of a total of 145 agreements), dating back to the late 1800s. Africa has more rivers shared by three or more countries than any other continent.

As climate change literally shapes African borders, we are likely to see more of these kinds of flare-ups.


But there’s more. There has been a long-running dispute over the ownership of Lake Nyasa/ Malawi which forms the boundary between Tanzania and Malawi.

It wasnt just about the water – there was oil involved. In 2011 and again in 2012, the dispute intensified when Malawi granted licences to international companies to search for oil and gas in the lake.

Now, the big one to watch is Lake Victoria, where a tiny island Migingo has been the subject of a border dispute between Kenya and Uganda for years.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni once said (to hilarious effect) that island belongs to Kenya, but the fish and water belong to Uganda.

Now, there are rumours that there could be significant oil reserves beneath the lake, and the Migingo spat could only be the first of what could be another oil-fuelled water quarrel.

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