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Ethiopia and neighbours must talk water

The news that Ethiopia has begun diverting the flow of the Nile will ring alarm bells in every capital city through which the White and Blue Niles flow, but especially in Khartoum and Cairo, where the worst effects of the dam will be felt.

The hydroelectric dam - opulently titled the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - is, as the name suggests, part of a plan to restore Ethiopia to a pre-eminent position in the region. The Dh17bn dam is just the first part of a wider Dh44bn plan to harness the power of rivers in the country, in order to fulfill an aspiration to be Africa's leading power exporter.

In order to do that, however, the dam will be built across the Blue Nile, the larger of the two tributaries that form the Nile river. Egypt's fear is that this will hinder the flow of water that reaches its water-thirsty farms. With the majority of Egypt's population clustered around the narrow vein of water that flows through the country, the Egyptian government is nervous that any reduction in the share of water it receives will affect farming and lead to water shortages - which in turn could easily lead to social unrest, something Egypt is currently not short of.

For its part Ethiopia, and a coalition of upstream countries also pushing for a greater share of the Nile's water, point out that the agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan 90 per cent of the water from one of the world's longest rivers is a relic of the colonial era, hammered together when the British ran both countries. This is true and certainly a nation as populous as Ethiopia - and one that is the source of more than 80 per cent of the Nile - should not be expected to do without a fair share of the river's waters.

But what is a fair share is the question. The status quo is not acceptable, but nor is a unilateral decision by Ethiopia that could potentially disrupt the economy and social order of two pivotal countries. In the end, hundreds of millions of people depend in a direct way on the Nile and the waters cannot be monopolised by just one country. The seven countries most involved need to talk, swiftly and seriously. North and East Africa are thirsty, crowded neighbourhoods. This most precious resource needs to be amicably shared, or, of a certainty, it will lead to conflict - which is something this water-starved region already has plenty of.

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