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Wet War in a Dry Land

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As you begin the final descent into Cairo International Airport, you’re struck by a vast and endless swathe of sand. The Pyramids break up the expanse, and suddenly your eyes are met with green; a small green sliver cuts through that sprawling metropolis. In August of 2019, I found myself in the middle of that green sliver cutting through the country. On the bustling streets of Cairo, or the shores of Luxor and Aswan, or the top of the Nasser Dam, you couldn’t tell, but a conflict was brewing upstream.

Many miles upstream from Cairo, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is nearly ready to be unveiled. Despite construction delays, the dam’s reservoir is scheduled to be filled beginning next month. The fully operational dam will be a big coup for Ethiopia—and its Nobel laureate Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. The sheer volume of hydroelectric power production the dam will provide, will thrust Ethiopia onto the world stage as Africa’s largest power exporter. Providing electricity to the to the largely rural country, will thrust the country— and their economy—into the light.

Winners and Losers

But Ethiopia’s ascendence is Cairo’s loss. The Nile not only fills their coffers, but also their canteens. About 90% of the country’s fresh water is sourced from the Nile. While Egypt has been wracked with crippling droughts in the past, today Egypt is faced with a water crisis. According to Egyptian officials, they only can provide about 570 cubic meters of water per capita, annually—well below the 1,000 cubic meter threshold for water scarcity. The damming of the Nile upstream will markedly increase Egypt’s water scarcity dilemma. But, an even greater problem for Egypt will be the economic impact; Egyptian estimates, while unlikely, show a possible loss of economic production, annually, to the tune of $1.8 billion, and one million jobs. With an already crippled economy the prospect of endemic water shortages coupled with even further economic downturn creates a potential security dilemma—a potential for a repeat of the 2011 Revolution.

The North African country is no stranger to civil unrest, and the last vestiges of the old security state persist. The Egyptians I met had a running joke, when you asked them how long something would take, they’d respond in ‘Egyptian minutes’; a task that would normally take fifteen minutes anywhere else would take thirty there—because of the checkpoints. All throughout the south of the country, military and police checkpoints were everywhere. The military was everywhere in Cairo, patrolling the streets, hanging out in Tahrir Square, and manning checkpoints. The wounds of the last revolution can be seen across the country, and the political elite are keen to not fall down that path again—lending to a pervasive security state infiltrating all aspects of Egyptian life.

Ethiopia is no stranger to authoritarianism either. Since 1991, when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power, the state has been markedly repressive. But in 2018, Ethiopia began to turn the corner; mass protests forced the EPRDF elite out, and brought the young ‘reformer’, Abiy Ahmed to power. While Ahmed’s peace with Eritrea raised the prospect of reconciliation between warring ethnic factions at home, Ethiopia has not meaningfully turned the corner from its authoritarian past. Today, Freedom House ranks Ethiopia as ‘not free’.

Sisi, and Ahmed, two former military intelligence officers, are not dissimilar; their rule is built on a framework of nationalism. Ahmed ascended to power by embracing the burgeoning Oromo nationalist movement in the Oromia region of the country—where the 2018 protests began. Sisi has embraced militaristic nationalism to bring ‘dignity’ to a country that has withered under a brief, and deeply flawed experiment with democracy after the 2011Revolution. While both have been hailed as reformers, the truth is not so clear cut. At the heart of the Oromo region, a crackdown has begun. Fears of secession by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), has spurred a crackdown on any dissent. In Egypt, Sisi has been compared to Pinochet; the Wall Street Journal was quick to lament after his coup, that the “Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.” While that observation very deceptively gives a rosy view of Pinochet’s Chile, it is true that Sisi is like Pinochet—his repression knows no bounds.

Hot Heads Clash

So what does all this mean? Two nationalists are squaring off over an issue of national dignity for both countries. A blow to the GERD, victory for Egypt, is a death-knell for Ahmed’s rule. An Ethiopian victory, one that would imperil the water security, and the economy of Egypt, is a huge blow for Sisi. Both outcomes come with the threat of destabilization in either country —as neither country seems to be willing to compromise its dignity, and for Egypt they are unwilling to compromise their security.

The United States, ostensibly fearing the destabilization of the region, and its ally in Cairo, has tried to mediate the dispute between the principal stakeholders Ethiopia, and Egypt, and Sudan, which also shares the Nile river with the two countries. But, the U.S.-led effort quickly dissolved as Ethiopia refused to participate in the talks, accusing the U.S. of not being an impartial broker. Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States drew a sharp line for the country; “Ethiopia will not sign any agreement that gives up its rights on how to use its own Nile water.”

Egypt has also drawn a line; since October of last year, pro-regime media in Egypt has warned of military repercussions for Ethiopia’s advancement on the dam—warning that the dam project manifests an existential threat to Egypt. Ethiopia has responded in kind, with bellicose rhetoric. Recently, the Deputy Chief of the Army of Ethiopia warned that the country would defend itself against Egypt, warning that Egypt should be wary of Ethiopian military capabilities.

Barreling Towards the Brink

As a wannabe Pinochet, and a young, enterprising, faux reformer trade barbs over the world’s longest river, energizing their nationalistic bases, pining for glory, and restoring the natural order of state dignity, a war becomes inevitable. As it stands, Egypt has very little leverage; short of war, there is no way the Egyptians will get an agreement without compromising their water security to some degree. The inability of Egypt to get Ethiopia to the table will incentivize a strike by Egypt to stop the dam from going operational.

With the dam now nearly 73% complete, the clock is ticking on a tripartite agreement between Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa. With the clock running out, the worst expression of the sinister nationalisms of two rising African powers could manifest itself. With the stalling of talks recently, the onus is on Cairo to make the next move—and to seal the fate of the dam project. Hopefully Cairo chooses the diplomat over the gun to solve this dispute.


5 Comments on "Wet War in a Dry Land"

  1. Cloggie on Sun, 28th Jun 2020 11:55 pm 

    Uruguay, the most successful country in terms of dealing with Corona:

    – thinly populated
    – little public transport
    – high trust levels
    – responsible population
    – free and good healthcare
    – most people have fixed jobs rather than dayworkers
    – only one big city
    – rapid lockdown response but no curfew

    One wonders what JuanP is doing in Miami.

    And my own hobby horse:

    “Uruguay – the Forgotten Renewable Energy Champion“

  2. Sissyfuss on Mon, 29th Jun 2020 8:39 am 

    Overshoot will manifest itself in many different guises, with water availability in desert lands one of the most obvious. More humans means less of everything else.

  3. greetings supertard president saint sis on Mon, 29th Jun 2020 8:48 am 


  4. zero juan on Mon, 29th Jun 2020 8:49 am 

    “We farm on three empty, contiguous one acre plots in NE Miami-Dade County. It is an urban farm. We don’t own the land. I can’t disclose the location online for privacy and security reasons. My commute is around 20-30 minutes, depending on traffic. We farm in a very intensive way, very similar to what Curtis Stone “The Urban Farmer” does. If you want to see a satellite image of the farm PM me with your phone or email address and I will send you the address so you can look it up on Google maps. The property owner doesn’t want us posting the location online, it is part of our agreement.”

    LOL, juanPee, you say “we” but with you it is the imaginary zero juan the farmer. You are here on PO doing mindless socks and ID theft 20/7 so we know you don’t farm or do much else for that matter. You are a lie and a fraud. LMFAO “for privacy and security reasons” who the fuck are you afraid of? The ICE? Don’t tell me you are afraid of me you little pussy. MFG, you are a whimp. Do you think I would bother to go down to the dirty overcrowded Miami to fuck with a lunatic like you and visit is widdle 3acres fantasy garden plot? You really are demonstrating neurosis and paranoia.

  5. Dredd on Mon, 29th Jun 2020 9:02 am 

    That ‘wet war’ has many facets, endangering many wetnesses (Seaports With Sea Level Change – 10).

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