The only reason Egypt has even existed from ancient times until today is because of the Nile River, which provides a thin, richly fertile stretch of green through the desert. For the first time, the country fears a potential threat to that lifeline, and it seems to have no idea what to do about it.
Ethiopia is finalizing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, its first major dam on the Blue Nile, and they will eventually start filling the giant reservoir behind it to power the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa.
Egypt fears that will cut into its water supply, destroying parts of its precious farmland, hampering its large desert reclamation projects and squeezing its burgeoning population of 93 million people, who already face water shortages.
Dam construction on international rivers often causes disputes over the downstream impact. But the Nile is different: few nations rely so completely on a single river as much as Egypt does. The Nile provides over 90 percent of Egypt`s water supply. Almost the entire population lives cramped in the sliver of the Nile Valley. Around 60 percent of Egypt`s Nile water originates in Ethiopia from the Blue Nile, one of two main tributaries.
Egypt barely gets by with the water it does have. Because of its population, it has one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, some 660 cubic meters a person. The strain is further worsened by widespread inefficiency and waste. With the population on a path to double in 50 years, shortages are predicted to become severe even sooner, by 2025.
That is despite the fact that Egypt already receives the lion`s share of Nile waters: more than 55 billion of the around 88 billion cubic meters of water that flow down the river each year. It is promised that amount under agreements from 1929 and 1959 that other Nile nations say are unfair and ignore the needs of their own large populations.
Complicating the issue, no one has a clear idea what impact Ethiopia`s dam will actually have. Addis Ababa says it will not cause significant harm to Egypt or Sudan downstream.
Much depends on the management of the flow and how fast Ethiopia fills its reservoir, which can hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. A faster fill means blocking more water at once while doing it slowly would mean less reduction downstream.
Once the fill is completed, the flow would in theory return to its previous levels, but the fear in Egypt is that the damage from the fill years could be long-lasting or that Ethiopia could build more dams and hold Egypt hostage by continuing to reduce the flow.
One study by a Cairo University agriculture professor estimated Egypt would lose a staggering 51 percent of its farmland if the fill is done in three years. A somewhat slower fill over six years would cost Egypt 17 percent of its cultivated land, the study claimed — still a catastrophic scenario that would hit the food supply and put tens of thousands out of work in a country where a quarter of the workforce is employed in agriculture.
Internal government studies estimate that for every reduction of 1 billion cubic meters of water in Egypt`s supply, 200,000 acres of farmland will be lost and livelihoods of 1 million people would be affected, given that an average of five people live on each acre, a senior Irrigation Ministry official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the figures.
Other experts say the impact will be far smaller, even minimal.
They say Egypt could suffer no damage at all if it and Ethiopia work together and exchange information during the filling of the reservoir, adjusting the rate to ensure that Egypt`s own massive reservoir on the Nile, Lake Nasser, stays full enough to meet Egypt`s needs during the years of the fill.
Unfortunately, that isn`t happening between the two countries, whose ties have often been deeply strained.
"To my knowledge, this situation is unique, particularly at this scale," said Kevin Wheeler at the Oxford University`s Environmental Change Institute. "I just can`t think of another case that has two large reservoirs in series without a plan on how to operate them together."
Construction of the dam is around 60 percent complete and is likely to be finished this year or early next. Ethiopia has given little information on when it will start the fill or at what rate. It is pushing ahead with construction without waiting for an independent study on the impact that it, Egypt and Sudan agreed to under a 2015 Declaration of Principles agreement.
"We have taken into account (the dam`s) probable effects on countries like Egypt and Sudan," Ethiopia`s water, irrigation and electricity minister, Sileshi Bekele, told reporters in Addis Ababa. He added that plans for the filling process could be adjusted but did not elaborate.
A joint Ethiopian-Egyptian-Sudanese committee has met 15 times over the past two years, most recently this month, trying to implement the Declaration of Principles. Under that deal, they committed to abide by the impact study and agree on a plan for filling the reservoir and operating the dam. But though the deadline to complete it has passed, the study has hardly begun, held up by differences over information sharing and transparency.
In public, Egyptian officials have said both governments are cooperating.
But the frustration is starting to show.
In June, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri spoke of "difficult talks" and complained of delays in the impact study. He warned that unless Ethiopia addresses Egyptian concerns, Egypt will search for an alternative path, though he did not elaborate. The irrigation official said that Egypt is trying to build international pressure on Ethiopia.
A high-ranking government official acknowledged there`s little Egypt can do. "We can`t stop it and in all cases, it will be harmful to Egypt," he said.
A senior diplomat involved in the negotiations only shrugged. "We can only wait and see," he muttered. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are still ongoing.