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In Egypt, Nile is seen as almost a fundamental part of the country's identify. Image Credit: NYT

Minya, Egypt - The Egyptian farmer stood in his dust-blown field, lamenting his fortune. A few years ago, wheat and tomato-filled greenhouses carpeted the land. Now the desert was creeping in.

“Look,” he said, gesturing at the sandy soil and abandoned greenhouses. “Barren.”

The farmer, Hamed Jarallah, attributed his woes to dwindling irrigation from the overtaxed Nile, the fabled river at the heart of Egypt’s very identity. Already, the Nile is under assault from pollution, climate change and Egypt’s growing population, which officially hits 100 million people this month.

And now, Jarallah added, a fresh calamity loomed.

A colossal hydroelectric dam being built on the Nile 3,200km upriver, in the lowlands of Ethiopia, threatens to further constrict Egypt’s water supply - and is scheduled to start filling this summer.

“We’re worried,” he said. “Egypt wouldn’t exist without the Nile. Our livelihood is being destroyed, God help us.”

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Fisherman Abdul Halim Abdu Aziz plies the Nile, in Aswan.

The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the $4.5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - Africa’s largest, with a reservoir about the size of London - has become a national preoccupation in both countries, stoking patriotism, deep-seated fears and even murmurs of war.

To Ethiopians, the dam is a cherished symbol of their ambitions - a megaproject with the potential to light up millions of homes, earn billions from electricity sales to neighbouring countries and confirm Ethiopia’s place as a rising African power.

After years of bumpy progress, including corruption scandals and the mysterious death of its chief engineer, the first two turbines are being installed. Officials said the dam will start filling in July.

That prospect induces dread in Egypt, where the dam is seen as the most fundamental of threats.

Egypt is one of the driest countries on earth, with 95 per cent of its people living along the Nile or its teeming Delta. The river, which flows south to north, provides nearly all of their drinking water.

Never before has Egypt had to contend with a country upstream enjoying a chokehold over the Nile - a country, moreover, that an Egyptian ruler once tried to invade.

Egyptian experts have issued dire predictions of parched fields, empty taps and threats to farmers in the sprawling Nile Delta, which produces two-thirds of Egypt’s food supply. The growing risks of frequent, intense droughts on a hotter planet add to the tension.

President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi has staked his authority on defending the river. “The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,” he said at the United Nations last September.

For eight years, officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan - which lies between the two countries - squabbled fruitlessly over the dam. Egyptians worry that, if filled too quickly, the dam could drastically curtail their water supply. In November, in a last-ditch effort, the talks moved to Washington, where the White House has been mediating.

Pushing for an agreement

President Donald Trump, playing on his self-image as a deal-maker, has suggested that his efforts might merit a Nobel Prize. The White House is pushing for an agreement by the end of February, but Egyptian and Ethiopian officials warn it will not be easy.

In an interview last month, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s water minister, called Egypt’s claims to the Nile “the most absurd thing you ever heard.”

For millenniums, Egyptians were the unchallenged masters of the Nile, drawing on the river to build ancient empires and modern republics.

The pharaohs worshipped crocodiles and used the Nile to transport the giant granite blocks for the Great Pyramid of Giza. In 1970, Egypt’s towering post-independence leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, oversaw the completion of the Aswan High Dam, taming the Nile’s seasonal flows and transforming Egyptian agriculture.

Egypt justified its dominance over the river by citing a colonial-era water treaty and a 1959 agreement with Sudan. But Ethiopia does not recognise them, and when its former leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, proposed building a series of dams on the Nile in 1978, he met thinly veiled threats.

“We are not going to wait to die of thirst in Egypt,” said Egypt’s president at the time, Anwar Sadat. “We’ll go to Ethiopia and die there.”

The Renaissance Dam spans the Blue Nile, the river’s main tributary, which supplies most of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s young, modernising leader, Abiy Ahmad, insists that Egyptian fears about its impact are overblown. After taking office as prime minister in 2018, Abiy flew to Cairo to offer his reassurances

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Saline accumulation in Nile Delta.

“I swear, I swear, we will not hurt Egypt’s water supply,” he told reporters.

But by last fall, anxieties were rising again, and Abiy offered an ominous warning.

“No force could prevent” Ethiopia from completing the dam, he told Ethiopian lawmakers in October, less than two weeks after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving his country’s long conflict with Eritrea. If it came to it, Abiy added, he would get “millions readied” for war with Egypt.

While the two nations spar over the dam, hydrologists have said the most pressing threat facing the Nile stems from population growth and climate change. Egypt’s population increases by 1 million people every six months - a soaring rate that the UN predicts will lead to water shortages by 2025.

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An Egyptian couple celebrate their wedding on a boat in the Nile.

The dam has become the focus of Egypt’s water anxieties. The main sticking point with Ethiopia is how quickly it should be filled. Ethiopia said as few as four years, but Egypt, fearing a drought during the filling period, has argued for 12 or longer.

During an interview with The New York Times at the dam in 2018, Semegnew Bekele, the project manager, said the undertaking would “eradicate our common enemy - poverty.”

Soon after, he was found slumped behind the wheel of his Toyota Land Cruiser, a gunshot wound to the head. Police ruled it a suicide. A few weeks later, Abiy fired the dam’s main contractor over accusations of widespread corruption.

Despite the setbacks, the Ethiopians said they are close to finishing the dam. They started building it in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring, when Cairo was still in turmoil, and hostilities have dogged the project from the start.