Today, we unravel why Egypt and Sudan want to pull the plug on Ethiopia's dam on the Nile, watch Darfur flames reignite, discover a US election misnomer, and check in on the world's fastest-growing coronavirus epidemic.

Thank you for reading,

Carlos Santamaria


Today, we unravel why Egypt and Sudan want to pull the plug on Ethiopia's dam on the Nile, watch Darfur flames reignite, discover a US election misnomer, and check in on the world's fastest-growing coronavirus epidemic.

Thank you for reading,

Carlos Santamaria


Two weeks ago, Ethiopia started filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the upper Nile river, a $4.6 billion hydroelectric project that aims to bring electricity to tens of millions of energy-starved Ethiopians. Egypt and Sudan cried foul, warning that doing so too quickly will leave their farmers without enough water to irrigate crops. The main reservoir was filled in just a few days, a speed that Addis Ababa blamed on seasonal rains.

But this trilateral dispute is about more than just water — and even the US and China are getting involved. Why is the this dam such a big deal, and what happens next?

A bit of history. Egypt and Sudan argue that the dam is illegal under colonial-era water-sharing agreements that give Cairo — under terms agreed upon with Khartoum — control of the water flows of the Nile and its tributaries at the expense of its upstream neighbors (except Sudan). Addis Ababa accuses Cairo of unfairly perpetuating its monopoly over the water flow of the longest river in Africa, under treaties Ethiopia was not a party to.

These three countries share a vital interest in the Nile. Ethiopia not only wants to generate electricity for the 70 percent of its population who are off the grid, but also aims to become a net exporter of power to neighboring countries.

It's no exaggeration to call the Nile the lifeblood of Egypt. Almost all Egyptian economic activity is concentrated along the banks of the mighty river, and any disruption to its water flow could destroy Egypt's agriculture and tourism industries. Loss of Nile waters is also an existential threat in Sudan, because less water in the Blue Nile, the river's largest tributary, could be the death knell for poor Sudanese farmers already struggling to cope with droughts and floods exacerbated by climate change.

Negotiations have (so far) failed. The concerned parties have been trying to find a solution to their dispute since Ethiopia started building the dam in 2011. With construction now finished, Addis Ababa — fed up with the diplomatic stalemate — has turned on the tap to fill the reservoir, sending less water downstream toward Sudan and Egypt.

What does each side want? Cairo and Khartoum demand a binding agreement on exactly how much water Ethiopia will divert and how quickly it intends to divert it, warning that Addis Ababa must not fill the dam without their consent. Ethiopia wants a more flexible pact that gives Egypt and Sudan little say in Ethiopian management of an Ethiopian dam.

The dam has also stoked nationalist sentiments. In the 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat threatened to go to war with Ethiopia when Addis Ababa first floated the project. Many Egyptians resent that Ethiopia took advantage of the Arab Spring to start construction while Cairo was distracted. Ethiopia says it has every right to draw as much water as it needs from sections of the Blue Nile within its borders.

The threat of conflict has outside players worried. A US-brokered deal to end the dispute collapsed in February because Ethiopia found it one-sided in favor of Egypt, a longtime US ally. Washington may now use foreign aid to coax Ethiopia into a more flexible bargaining position. Beijing also has a stake because it wants to protect multiple Chinese infrastructure investments in the region — including several that depend on the dam itself (which Ethiopia has paid for on its own, by the way).

For now, a war over this dam is unlikely. But water will only become a more precious resource in years to come, and future governments in these three countries may exercise much less restraint. The bigger picture is that almost two-thirds of the world's rivers cross the borders of countries that are home to 40 percent of the global population.

In a world where climate change is wreaking havoc with water supplies, this fight over the Nile could be a warning of conflicts to come.



In this week's Quick Take, Ian Bremmer discusses US election polls and whether President Trump might contest the election outcome if he loses in November. What would this mean for Democrats, Republicans and the judiciary? Find out here.



COVID-19 pummels India: India, home to 1.3 billion people, passed a grim milestone recently as the country with the fastest-growing epidemic in the world, according to Bloomberg's COVID tracker. Reporting over 1.43 million cases on Monday, a 20 percent week-on-week increase, it now trails only the US and Brazil in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. Indeed, several factors have complicated India's efforts to contain the virus. Workers who toil in the country's robust informal sector do not have the luxury of working from home. Meanwhile, social distancing and hygienic upkeep are all but impossible for millions of people living in crowded slums. On Monday, India recorded one of its highest daily caseloads, with almost 50,000 reported infections, likely a gross undercount considering that the country still has one of the lowest testing rates in the world. (India is testing around 12 people per 1,000, compared to 153 in the US, 130 in the UK, and 184 in Russia.)

Fresh wave of violence in Darfur: At least 60 people have been killed in clashes in Sudan's Darfur region in recent days, the latest episode in a string of violent incidents that threaten to destabilize the country's nascent transitional government. Clashes between the Masalit ethnic group and other Arab tribes broke out after some 500 armed militants stormed the Masteri village, and proceeded to loot homes and local markets. This attack coincided with the region's agricultural season, exacerbating the dire humanitarian situation for millions of Sudanese (around 6.2 million Sudanese already rely on humanitarian assistance to survive, according to USAID.) The recent unrest threatens the effort by Sudan's joint civilian-military government — which came to power after Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's former strongman president, was overthrown in a coup last year — to end a decades-long civil war that displaced millions of people. Al-Bashir himself is expected to face international charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in The Hague because of his government's brutal crackdown on rebellions that resulted in at least 300,000 deaths.

US election calendar: Last Sunday, many US analysts noted that the November 3 US elections were just 100 days away. This is false. President Trump has much less than 100 days to stage a comeback in a race he now appears to be losing, because more US states now allow early voting by mail, and because COVID-19 makes it more likely that tens of millions of Americans will cast mail-in ballots in September and October. The virus will likely blunt the political impact of the scaled-back party conventions scheduled for August, and as many as half of all votes cast in swing states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, and North Carolina may well be cast before the first televised presidential debate scheduled for September 28. (That debate is now looking for a new venue after COVID-19 forced the University of Notre Dame to withdraw as host on Monday.)



50: Amid recent public health and economic crises, as well as widespread protests over racial injustice, half of registered Republicans, 50 percent, now say that the country is headed in the wrong direction. While that's lower than the 68 percent of Americans who believe the country isn't doing well, there are clear signs that Republican voters' confidence is slipping.

6: After six years of conflict, a ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine came into effect Monday. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy both appeared to back the deal, which comes after at least a dozen past attempts to broker a truce in eastern Ukraine have fallen through.

170: Somalia's Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire has been removed from his post after a vote of no confidence was backed by 170 out of 178 MPs. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who appointed Khaire in 2017, also backed the ouster on the grounds that the PM had failed to pave the way for free and fair elections in 2021, the first democratic polls in over 50 years.

34: Poland says it will take steps to withdraw from a European treaty on violence against women and domestic violence which it ratified in 2015. Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party, and its conservative allies aligned with the Catholic Church, said the convention, which has been ratified by 34 countries, was "harmful" because of its "ideological nature."



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This edition of Signal was written by Carlos Santamaria, Gabrielle Debinski, Willis Sparks, and Alex Kliment. Art by Gabriella Turrisi. Spiritual counsel from an Italian island where no one has gotten sick.


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