The Big Story

Want to read four quick sentences that outlay a hugely disproportionate percentage of the problems the world will be facing over the next few decades?  Of course you do!

Egypt’s president has warned Ethiopia that “all options are open” in dealing with its construction of a Nile dam that threatens to leave Egypt with a dangerous water shortage.

Speaking in a live televised speech before hundreds of supporters on Monday, Mohammed Morsi said Egypt was not calling for war, but it is willing to confront any threats to its water security.

“If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative,” he said to a raucous crowd of largely Islamist supporters that erupted into a standing ovation.

Ethiopia’s $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam, which would be Africa’s largest, challenges a colonial-era agreement that had given Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share of rights to Nile water.

So, what do we have?  The shrinking pie of natural resources compounding older dilemmas about resource distribution?  Those issues being further compounded by largely-arbitrary* colonial borders and agreements signed by people long-dead and in unjust power?   An ideologically-driven leader standing at the bloody intersection of democratic trappings and atavistic impulses leading a people unsure how to interact with the modern world?   Sure- and hey, sport: let’s add in plain old racism!

There are those who think Morsi is a clown or is dangerous or is transitory.  No one really knows what is coming next.  But as this shows, in the long run, it doesn’t matter.  Our politics are played against a background of demographics and ecology, and that background is falling apart.  The actors are spouting lines from other plays and half-remembered commercials and the audience is storming the stage with nooses and their cousin’s scripts.    That’s the world we’re rushing headlong into, where wars over water will, and have already, erupt, and to many of us it will seem overnight.

But all this has been brewing, and it is made worse by nationalism and the power of lines.  This is my water.  This is yours, chief, and don’t get greedy.  It is foolish to imagine that colonial machinations and the whims of Empire aren’t still reverberating around the our rapidly-drying history.  Egypt is just one of the coming flashpoints.   Three things, generally intertwined, that we as a species have never really learned to incorporate into our ideas of society are the implacability of nature (and that it doesn’t care about us, or anything), the weight of history, and the surge of demographics.   If we don’t want to hear more and more of these stories, we might want to learn to deal with them.

*I admit that Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Sudan have lines that are more complicated and older than colonial era, but there is still a lot of Kitchener fingerprints on the situation, and much of Africa and the Middle East was drawn in European parlors.

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