One of the ways that one can tell that a scarcity mindset is in place is when there are actions taken that “beggar thy neighbor” instead of working together. When resources are plentiful enough to share, then the ability to cooperate and work together may be found. When resources are scarce, that is when competition becomes more serious, and when peaceful cooperative relations between nations breaks down. It appears that with water at least, one of our most precious of resources, and absolutely essential for survival, we are already reaching a critical point in many parts of the world where water rights could provoke actual conflict between nations. This is a serious matter, and not something that we are used to seeing, but something that is at least a possibility in several already conflict-ridden parts of the world.
One of those areas, and an often-ignored one, is the fight over water in the Nile River. Concerns about the survival of Egypt based on the Nile River and its waters is an ancient historical concern, one that goes back at least to the first book of the Bible. Joseph achieved power in Egypt as a result of his wise advice on how to deal with a coming drought and water shortage in determining how to preserve the life of the Egyptian people (and those of surrounding areas) during a major and prolonged water crisis. Of course, the advice that Joseph gave he first received from God, but that sound advice allowed Egypt to live when less wise rulers would not have been able to husband their resources enough to preserve life in a serious seven-year drought.
What is facing Egypt is not a natural drought, but is the possibility of a massive water shortage thanks to the deliberate action of another nation, Ethiopia, to use a dam to seize a greater amount of water for its own purposes . Ethiopia, like other states that control the sources of water, has a major advantage over nations like Sudan and Egypt, which depend on water first passing through Ethiopia and then downstream. Of course, there are official treaties that govern the water rights on the Nile River, and those treaties, which were negotiated during the colonial era when England had a dominant role in both Egypt and the Sudan and Ethiopia was much more marginalized, favored Sudan and Egypt at Ethiopia’s expense.
Now the tables have turned. Egypt built a dam several decades ago (the Aswan High Dam) and so it really does not have any moral credibility to complain about anyone else damming up the Nile River. Sudan is now divided between Sudan and South Sudan, and does not have a direct border on Ethiopia, which now has a friendly neighbor to the north with plenty of water itself and no complaints about Ethiopia taking “its fair share.” So Sudan and Egypt, which stand to lose about 20% of their water supply in the next three to five years as Ethiopia fills up a massive reservoir behind a massive dam, now have to face the unpleasant reality of losing water that they have taken for granted for decades at a time when their own political troubles and societal divisions leave them vulnerable to actions from others.
Right now Egypt is saber rattling. In one sense, they have no choice, as their standard of living in a crowded desert country whose only major source of water is the Nile cannot be maintained with a loss of a fifth of their water supply. However, the options of Egypt are rather limited. If Egypt has trouble taking on its neighbor Israel with allies, its options are considerably less beneficial when dealing with an Ethiopia that is mostly surrounded by friendly states. With the recognized independence of South Sudan and the de facto independence of Somaliland, along with a friendly Djibouti, only an anarchical Somalia that is distant from the site of the dam and a hostile but weak Eritrea that is largely insular and focused on its own affairs (and its own civil disorder) where power can be projected into Ethiopia.
Egypt’s options for a military strike against Ethiopia are not good, and yet for domestic political reasons Egypt has to attempt to bluff a stronger stance than it can realistically take. The fact remains that if Ethiopia has the means and the desire to build a dam and take a greater share of the Nile than it has taken in the past, then there is little that Egypt (or Sudan) can do to stop it. This sort of problem is similar to that which exists between the United States and Mexico over the Colorado River and between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories over the Jordan River. The nations that control the sources of a river have a great deal of leverage over their neighbors, and the possibility to cause great harm to their standard of living. Whether this will eventually lead into armed conflicts is something that remains to be seen, but it is a possibility. Conflicts have started over vastly less serious matters, and water is one of those resources that is a matter of life and death. Therefore the threat of conflict remains.