If​ you want to go and look at the Aswan High Dam you can book a tour. I’d had the idea that the trip would be complicated to arrange, that in a country where water is seen as an issue of national security you’d have to make a compelling case for being allowed to inspect the structure where the Nile is impounded. But it wasn’t like that. The High Dam is about as famous as a work of hydroengineering gets – a symbol of Egypt’s transformation after the Free Officers’ Revolution in 1952 and usually the first example wheeled out when someone is trying to explain what the point of a dam is.

I still remember a sentence I learned for my first school geography exam: ‘The Aswan High Dam transformed Egypt’s agricultural practices, and therefore its economy.’ The dam, completed in 1970, made it possible to control the annual flooding of the Nile and increased the country’s irrigation zone by about a third. Lake Nasser, named for the president who oversaw the dam’s construction but died before it was officially opened, is one of the biggest man-made lakes in the world, stretching five hundred kilometres through the Western Desert from the city of Aswan into Sudan to the south. It’s an ocean of a reservoir in the middle of the kind of landscape teachers have in mind when they attempt to explain to children about the Sahara: it’s taken for granted that you would want to see it, and trips are easily organised.

A guide picked me up from my hotel and we drove across a bridge manned at either end by soldiers with machine guns. Egypt is under the military rule of a president who has just extended the national state of emergency for a fourth year running and checkpoints are so ubiquitous they don’t usually merit an explanation. My guide was in expository mood, however, and leaned over confidingly to tell me that the reason for the dogs and the inspection of the underside of the car was that the dam was controlled by the army – which was good, he said, because the High Dam is the soul of Egypt, and the army is stronger than anything else. Stronger than the police, stronger than the Muslim Brotherhood, stronger than anyone.

He asked if I knew anything about the revolution, ten years ago this January, and before I could open my mouth he told me that tourists shouldn’t be scared because the country is ‘100 per cent clean’ now. With something approaching giddiness, he said what he meant by 100 per cent clean is that after the revolution we killed all the terrorists. He had a yellow jersey tied around his neck and he fussed with the knot as he explained that we used to put them in jail, but now we just kill them, so there is nothing for foreigners to worry about anymore.

We stopped the car and walked past more soldiers to a viewpoint on the dam wall. You can take photographs, but if you try to take a video a young soldier will tell you to stop. He will maybe smile tightly as you say you were looking for crocodiles, which are supposed to have grown to freakish size in the vast calm of the lake and according to your guide are ‘much in demand as beasts to photograph’. The young soldier will tell you to delete the video, and he will check your phone to make sure you’ve done it. Your guide will say again that it has to be this way because the High Dam is the soul of Egypt. You can go on a four-day cruise around Lake Nasser if you want, but there is a no-fly zone overhead and your movements are monitored in case you are engaged in intelligence gathering. Before the revolution, your guide will tell you, tourists could go through the dam’s locks, but now we can’t allow it. You would understand all this if you realised that the High Dam is the soul of Egypt.

People in Egypt often talk about water in these terms. If the High Dam is Egypt’s soul, a drought is its nightmare. The Nile is the heart, the blood, the backbone, the jugular vein. About 95 per cent of the country’s water comes from the river, which runs through or along the borders of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Sudan before arriving in Egypt, ribboning its way north and emptying into the sea near Alexandria.

Egypt’s dependence on the Nile is central to its self-definition, but there’s something about that number, 95 per cent, that startles people when they are obliged to consider it. Everyone would ask: did I understand that a country with a population of 100 million, growing at 1.8 million a year, relied almost entirely on this one river? Was I aware? Sometimes people would relay the facts while gesturing to body parts. A fist in the middle of the chest, a finger on the pulse, as people found different ways to say that the Nile is the country’s most essential organ. It took me a while to recognise that these gestures connoted a sense of ownership as much as a sense of need.

The Nile as it arrives in Egypt has two main tributaries, which converge near Khartoum: the White Nile, rising in Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile, rising in Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Exact figures are disputed, but almost everyone agrees that at least 80 per cent of the river’s water originates in the Ethiopian highlands. An academic who spent his career studying the hydropolitics of the Nile Basin until he was forced to leave Egypt told me I had to understand the psychological dimension to the country’s water issue. What I had to understand about Egypt and water was that Egypt didn’t have any. It all came from somewhere else, which meant that the upstream countries could, in theory, turn off the tap. People who grow up in the desert tend to think of rain as a big deal. Even in the cities, they celebrate a downpour when it happens. Farmers elsewhere look to the sky and ask for water, he said, but in Egypt they look to Ethiopia. While I was there I heard over and over again that Egyptians think of the Nile as their water, stored in other people’s countries.

In 2011, the year of the uprising in Tahrir Square, Ethiopia began construction on what will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam, expected to be completed by 2023. In Egypt, the two events – the revolution and the commencement of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (GERD) – are sometimes spoken about as having a causal relationship, the implication being that Ethiopia could start work on a structure that will allow it to impound 74 billion cubic metres of Nile water only because Egypt was otherwise preoccupied. The idea that Egypt could have done anything to prevent the dam being built, domestic upheaval or not, is vigorously refuted by Ethiopia, which challenges the colonial-era agreements, instituted by Britain, that asserted the ‘natural and historical right of Egypt to the waters of the Nile’ (87 per cent of that water, to be precise, with the other 13 per cent granted to Sudan) and gave Egypt a veto on any projects upstream. Pointing out that Ethiopia was excluded from the drawing up of these agreements, which Egypt insists are still valid, Ethiopian officials have spent the last ten years defending their dam: it’s our water and it’s our money that built it. Here are the headwaters of the Blue Nile, within our borders, and here is the dam that is going to provide six gigawatts of electricity – the equivalent of twelve coal-fired power stations – in a country where the majority of people don’t have domestic access. There is your High Dam, your massive nation-building project, and here is ours.

Negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have broken down repeatedly over the past ten years. Thanks to its location at the end of the line, it’s more urgent for Egypt to come to some arrangement with its neighbours than it is for any other of the riparian states, but the country’s sense of its ‘natural and historical’ entitlement to the river seems to have blurred politicians’ ability to distinguish compromise from surrender. In June 2013, weeks after Ethiopia started diverting the flow of the Blue Nile in preparation for the building of the dam, Egyptian politicians (including the then president, Mohamed Morsi) were caught on camera discussing plans to sabotage the project, which they described as ‘a declaration of war’. Apparently unaware that the meeting was being aired live on state television, their suggestions included deploying special forces to destroy the dam, sending fighter jets to intimidate the Ethiopians, and for Egypt to lend its support to anti-government rebel groups.

Egypt has long since acknowledged (or tacitly accepted) that it does not have the power to halt the dam’s construction, but discussions remain fraught over how quickly GERD’s reservoir should be filled and how much water Ethiopia will release in the event of drought. While Egypt insists that GERD should not be allowed to reach full capacity for up to 21 years so that preparations can be made for the reduction in the Nile’s flow, Ethiopia insists that the reservoir will be full within six years. To add to the acrimony, Egypt and Sudan demand that Ethiopia guarantee a minimum outflow of water from the reservoir; Ethiopia sees this as a demand that it should, in practice, continue to abide by colonial-era treaties.

Last June, Ethiopia rejected a compromise drafted by the US, on the grounds that it appeared to favour Egypt. On a phone call with Sudan’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, Donald Trump suggested that Egypt was ‘not going to be able to live that way’ and would ‘end up blowing up the dam’. His administration had already announced that it was cutting $100 million of aid to Ethiopia because of a ‘lack of progress’ in negotiations. Talks broke down again and the African Union took over as mediator between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, but there are no signs of an agreement being reached. Ethiopia began impounding water in the reservoir during last summer’s rains, saying it was a necessary part of the construction process. The rainy season begins again in June, and the reservoir will once again start to fill.

Ten years of what news organisations like to call ‘sabre rattling’ between Egypt and Ethiopia have led to long panel discussions about whether or not it is alarmist to think we may be on the verge of the first transboundary water war. That war hasn’t yet materialised, but neither has an agreement, and the reservoir is filling. When people in Egypt talk about this fact, the body part they gesture to most often is the throat: two hands around the neck in a throttling motion. One woman I spoke to compared it to somebody else having the keys to your house, able to lock you out whenever they felt like it.

Since Sisi took power in 2014 and began the escalating campaign of repression and torture that has not yet found its upper limit, he has used the imminent threat posed by GERD to position himself as the nation’s protector, promising that he will not allow any violation of Egypt’s right to the Nile. At a press conference in Ismailia a few weeks ago, wearing dark glasses and an expression of barely muted fury, Sisi warned that ‘no one will ever take a drop of water from Egypt, or else there will be a state of regional instability that no one can even imagine. No one should think that they can escape our might.’ It’s a useful political narrative. The regime can be seen to be addressing the fact that the country has a critical water problem while handing off a large part of the blame for it, as if GERD were almost entirely at fault for Egypt’s obvious and worsening water shortages.

By 2025, Egypt’s annual per capita supply of usable water is predicted to drop from six hundred cubic metres to five hundred – the UN threshold for absolute water scarcity. Hydrological poverty at this level doesn’t just mean a daily struggle for access to safe drinking water and basic hygiene, in a country where a third of drinking water is already lost during distribution because of dilapidated pipes. It means that thinking about water – how to get it, how to use and reuse it, how not to get sick from it – becomes something you can’t escape. The UN’s projection is based on factors that have nothing to do with the dam. They include mismanagement and misallocation of resources, pollution, illegal siphoning, overexploitation of groundwater, increasing soil salinity because of a rising sea level, a rapidly growing population and climate change.

As in every country where the water crisis has reached a point at which it can no longer be ignored, these problems exacerbate one another. Speaking about the many pressures on the Nile, a researcher at the American University in Cairo told me that ‘in Egypt, there’s just so much to do. You start on one project and you look around and you realise that you should be doing a thousand of these projects right now.’ Pollution in the Nile’s main stem, along with drains and canals, has risen dramatically over the last few decades. In Aswan, the river smells like the mountain rivers I grew up swimming in – like rain and soil and being clean. The water is green and clear, and when you swim out far enough that your feet no longer touch the bottom, you can see right down to the rocks beneath you. An anecdotal assessment of water clarity is not a measure of anything, of course, but it was difficult to reconcile that swim with a study showing that the stretch of the Nile from Aswan to the Delta Barrages near Cairo receives polluted water from 124 sources, half of them industrial and the other half from agricultural drains. Untreated sewage is pumped directly into the river along its length and, in the cities especially, it is treated as a garbage dump. Further downstream from Aswan, there is no need for scientific studies to demonstrate the river’s filthiness. There are places where the water is so toxic that it foams, and incidences of kidney disease are high, especially among children. Farmers in the Nile Delta see their irrigation channels dry up in front of them, as the tertiary canals leading from the river become entirely blocked by rubbish. Using well water for irrigation is becoming more problematic: not only does groundwater have fewer nutrients than water from the Nile, but it is also increasingly saline thanks to saltwater intrusion into aquifers from sea level rise.

In some parts of the north-eastern delta, close to the coast, the problem has become so bad that agriculture is no longer viable, leading communities to switch to fish farming. Further south, the water that comes out of the wells is too polluted for use in irrigation. Compounding the difficulties that poor farmers face is the fact that petrol and electricity prices have risen steeply since Sisi took power. The water itself may be free, but pumping it out of wells or canals costs money, and a growing number of people can’t afford to irrigate their fields. Although Egypt is one of the oldest agricultural societies in the world, most essential foods are imported: domestic production can’t meet the needs of the population. This last bit of information was often imparted to me with the same air of bewilderment as the 95 per cent statistic, as if we were talking about a maths problem that should have been easy to solve but wasn’t. I saw the same look on the hydropolitics professor’s face when he told me that Lake Nasser loses up to sixteen billion cubic metres of water to evaporation every year – a fifth of the Nile’s average flow.

That these issues are unconnected to a dam upstream seems obvious, but the longer I spent in Egypt, the more difficult it became to say so out loud. On one of my first days in Cairo, the hydropolitics professor warned me how hard it would be to get an accurate sense of Egypt’s crisis: how much water the country was using and for what, how real was the threat from GERD. A government official once told him that it would be easier to get trustworthy information from the Ministry of Defence than from the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation. I came to see what he meant. A conversation about pollution would quickly turn into a discussion of the way the state is failing the poor – making it dangerous for the person I was speaking to. A question about whether Egypt has enough water to meet its needs would be met by one of two kinds of answer, both of them bad. If I was told that it did have enough, then the next question would have to be along the lines of: well, then, where is this water going? Why are there entire villages that go days if not weeks with no access to water at all? If the answer was that it didn’t, the next question would inevitably touch on the state institutions and the corporations that consume vast amounts of the limited supply. Another academic who has been made to understand that it is no longer safe for him to be in Egypt put it to me like this: ‘Any transparency about how much water Egypt does or doesn’t have will lead to a very valid set of questions, and our regime doesn’t do at all well with those.’

Towards the end of my trip, I met a woman who over the last seven years has seen many friends, relatives and colleagues disappear into Egypt’s prisons, joining the estimated sixty thousand political detainees held in conditions not conducive to survival. Many of these people are held indefinitely in pre-trial detention, with modified or entirely new cases brought against them when the limit for the previous charge has been reached. This practice is known as ‘rotation’ and is used as a punitive measure against activists, journalists and individuals perceived to be critical of the state. Sometimes detainees will be informed of the new charges and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes their presence will be permitted at the Terrorism Circuit Court sessions, where the term of detention is renewed, and sometimes it won’t.

We were very close to the river, close enough to make out the expressions on the faces of the rowing crews cutting along the water, and to try to construct a plausible explanation for whatever was going on in the fishing boat a few metres away, where two old men were passing a bucket back and forth over and over again. The woman asked me how my water stuff was going. I said I’d had a hard time working out why some questions were so difficult to ask, why what I’d thought were straightforward inquiries sounded like demands for secret or dangerous information.

She said OK, I’ll tell you a story. Someone close to her had been arrested around the time Sisi came to power, under the broad ‘counterterrorism’ charges the state brings against those involved in human rights work. This person had a daughter, who had been a toddler when her father went to prison. In March last year, the Interior Ministry announced a blanket ban on family visits, ostensibly to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In August the suspension was lifted, but the already intermittently granted concessions had changed. Instead of being allowed up to three visitors once a month, at least theoretically, detainees were now permitted visits from one person only, for twenty minutes. ‘And, you know,’ the woman said, ‘a child is a person.’ An eight-year-old can’t go into one of these places alone, so the man hadn’t seen his child for nearly nine months. His family had done everything they could to persuade the prison officials to let them accompany the child into the prison; one day, suddenly, the request was granted. To the elation of the man and his family, he’d been able to see his child for half an hour.

The point of the story wasn’t just that the Egyptian military was using the pandemic as a pretext to continue to torture the regime’s opponents, or that you could watch as these purportedly temporary measures were etched into permanence, or that the effect of living under these conditions is to make you grateful for things you would once have been horrified by. The point was that no one had any real idea why the authorities had changed their minds, and no one knew what someone in this man’s position would need to do to be able to count on seeing his child outside a prison one day. ‘The strategy is to leave you bewildered,’ the woman said, so you never know what you’ve done right, or what you haven’t. As the two old men finally lowered a net into the water, she said this was why answering any question at all was risky.

At 5 a.m. on one of my last days in Egypt, I stood outside Ramses Station and tried to find a taxi. It was dark, and raining so hard it was difficult to tell where the water was coming from. This is something that happens more often than it used to in Cairo: spectacular rainstorms that empty out over the city like an overturned bath. Egyptian cities weren’t developed with downpours in mind. There are few rainwater drainage networks, and the antiquated sewage systems are quickly overwhelmed. Alexandria flooded badly three times last year; a children’s hospital was partially submerged in November. Current projections suggest that the city will be ‘underwater’ in thirty years’ time. I want there to be a better term for what’s going to happen to places such as Alexandria. ‘Underwater’ has a dramatic ring, but there’s also a sort of dreamy, mythical quality to it, as an ancient city sinks elegantly beneath the waves. I want a word that conveys just how scared and sick people are going to be.

The rain that morning in Cairo wasn’t going to lead to a flood, but it was heavy, and by the time I found a taxi the water was past my ankles. I sat steaming in the back of the cab trying to wring my hair out onto my wet jeans rather than the seat, as if this would do anything to improve the spongy conditions. As we drove off, the driver rapped his knuckle on the window and gestured at the sheets of water bouncing off the pavement, the windscreen wipers making absolutely no difference to our ability to see more than a metre in front of us. He looked back at me to make sure I was getting all this, then rapped his knuckle against the window again and pointed outside at the water, as if there was anything else in the world to look at, or to think about.

Listen to Rosa Lyster discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast

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