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Robert Rotberg is the founding director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, former senior fellow, CIGI, and president emeritus, World Peace Foundation.

The cradle of human civilization developed in northeastern Africa largely because of abundant supplies of flowing water and the annual floods that submerged fertile soils along the Nile River. But ambitious modern economic-development initiatives threaten the liquid promises of millennia past and urban lives ahead. Ethiopia is now building a massive dam that will slow, if not interfere with, the flow of Nile water. This major clash of expectation versus exploitation is dividing Egypt and Ethiopia, and also inflaming relations among Sudan and South Sudan and the six other nations that are integral to the great basin of the Nile River. Skillful mediation is required to head off war over water in Africa.

The Nile is two great rivers joined into one at Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. The long White Nile, with its origins discovered south of the equator in Tanzania by a bevy of 19th-century explorers such as John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton, despite its length supplies only 15 per cent of the entire flow of the great river as it slowly makes it way north from Lake Victoria toward Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea.

Eighty-five per cent of the Nile’s water as it reaches the alluvial plains of northern Egypt comes instead from the Blue Nile as it surges northward over a series of massive waterfalls from Lake Tana in northwestern Ethiopia, another home of an ancient civilization.

These flows of precious water coursed uninterrupted for eons, providing as they did sweet supplies to nurture wheat and other life-sustaining crops along the lower reaches of the combined Nile as it meandered slowly across Egypt’s agriculturally fertile plains between Luxor and Cairo. The pharaohs, their peoples and all of their successors depended on the sustenance of the Nile waters. Even after the Aswan High Dam was constructed by General Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt with Soviet assistance (U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower refused to help) and completed in 1970, the Nile waters kept coming and the rapidly growing population of urban Egypt could still depend on the food crops grown in the annual 55.5 billion cubic metres of waters that arrive annually as the floods of the Nile. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the authoritarian ruler of Egypt since 2014, says that the Nile is “a matter of life and death” for his country and that “no one can touch Egypt’s share of the water.” He demands that Ethiopia cease construction on the dam as a precondition to negotiations.

But Ethiopia, controlling the sources of the Blue Nile (but only a comparatively limited length of river) has other ideas. One sovereignty conflicts with another. By the end of 2018, Ethiopia will have completed the construction of the largest dam in Africa and one of the largest in the world. The equivalent in size and electricity-generating capacity of three Hoover Dams, Ethiopia’s new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, costing US$4-billion, has risen more than 152 metres tall and, after the last of its turbines is installed this year, will produce 6,450 megawatts of power annually.

That is more than enough power for the more than 90 million people of Ethiopia, where electricity has long been very limited, and is sufficient (were transmission lines available) to power the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Seventy-five per cent of Ethiopians now lack readily available access to electrical power, a common African condition. Indeed, the late Meles Zenawi, the visionary prime minister of Ethiopia, initiated work on the dam, and found national resources with which to pay for its construction, in order to transform Ethiopia from an impoverished, energy-weak African outpost into a potential economic powerhouse. Already, with Chinese assistance, Ethiopia has become a major exporter of shoes (fashioned from abundant Ethiopian hides and skins). With surpluses of relatively inexpensively generated electricity, Ethiopia will be able to invite big users of power such as blockchain computer farms and aluminum foundries in addition to selling power to the many African countries that hardly have any.

It is exactly at this juncture that Ethiopian and Egyptian vital interests collide. Ethiopia says “don’t worry,” the waters will still flow in abundance over the dam and proceed downstream as they always have toward Cairo and Alexandria. However, for the five to 15 years that it will take to fill the new lake behind the Renaissance Dam, there could be some serious shortages of flow. Mr. al-Sisi’s worries are real.

Egypt pounces on that point, noting that its dependence on home-grown food for a population of 97 million can hardly be deferred for up to 15 years, or even seven. After all – and this is the climate-change reality – the rains of Africa have become very erratic. The lake behind the dam could fill very slowly and competition between water to power turbines and water for the farmers of Egypt could become heated. Droughts are now common, especially across the Sahel that leads to Ethiopia, and more so farther south. Cape Town, at Africa’s tip, will absolutely go bone-dry in July unless the winter rains there come early and in abundance. Lake Chad, in the middle of Africa, has lost 90 per cent of its water over the past 30 years and could simply vanish.

Egypt says that its people and its precarious politics between authoritarianism and the threat of Islamism can hardly pause for a decade or more waiting for Ethiopia to fill its new dam. Egypt also points to a colonial agreement signed in 1959 that shared the waters of the Nile with Sudan (and no other country) and a never-ratified but heavily negotiated 2010 agreement that theoretically distributed the Nile waters among the 10 countries of the entire Nile River basin, but was eventually rejected by Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia hardly feels bound by the 2010 discussions.

When the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was first planned in 2011 and the first excavations were dug, just before the Arab Spring erupted, then-president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and his air-force generals threatened to bomb the dam and set off a war between the much more powerful Egyptian military and the much weaker Ethiopians. Egypt is still stronger militarily, but Ethiopia controls the source of the preponderance of Nile water. And Egyptians would have to cross the Sudan to attack Ethiopia. Yet, given President al-Sisi’s anger, there is still a remote possibility of war.

Even without direct combat, however, worries about water will continue to drive relations between a mountain kingdom that is coming into its own and an ancient flat-land power that resists the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State but cannot contemplate life without those 55.5-billion cubic metres of Nile water.

There is a win-win here, since at no time has Ethiopia contemplated halting water flows across the dam and downstream to the Sudan (which equally depends on what limited crops it can grow in the Gezira basin and elsewhere along the Nile). It says that it might be able to fill the lake behind the Renaissance dam slowly, to ensure “reasonable” flows. But Ethiopia’s hedges hardly moderate Egypt’s fears of a possible 15-year hiatus, and an impending catastrophe that is a colossal human problem to be solved and adjudicated.

Negotiations have frequently collapsed, most recently in December. It is time for them to be restarted, perhaps under African Union or United Nations auspices, or conceivably hosted by a neutral third country such as Canada.

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