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Tomorrow’s world

Egypt could trigger the first water war

Eduardo Soteras/Getty Images

For 10 years Ethiopia and Egypt have teetered “on the verge of the first transboundary water war”, says Rosa Lyster in the London Review of Books. Egypt’s population of 100 million, which is growing at 1.8 million a year, relies almost entirely on the Nile. Apart from a few tributaries, however, the river originates in the Ethiopian highlands, where the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project – “Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam” – will be completed in 2023. “Farmers elsewhere look to the sky and ask for water”, but in Egypt “they look to Ethiopia”. Ethiopia doesn’t think a colonial British mandate entitling Egypt to 87% of the Nile is worth the paper it’s written on. Egyptians, on the other hand, think of the river “as their water, stored in other people’s countries”.

Either way, Egypt’s supply of drinkable water is predicted to drop to “the UN threshold for absolute water scarcity” by 2025. And it’s nothing to do with the dam. A third of drinking water is lost to dilapidated pipes. Rising sea levels flood aquifers with saltwater. Sprawling cities clog irrigation channels with garbage. Entire villages go “days if not weeks” without water.

Egypt’s strongman president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, warned recently that “no one will ever take a drop of water from Egypt”. He largely escapes criticism because academics and journalists who ask tricky questions join the estimated 60,000 political prisoners in jail. Meanwhile, for ordinary Egyptians, 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 regeneration game 

If you cut a planarian (a 2cm flatworm) into pieces, each one will regenerate into a whole organism, says Matthew Hutson in The New Yorker. But the biologist Michael Levin has used electrical signals to reprogramme a planarian so it grows a second head when its tail is cut off. Deer can regenerate antlers and humans can regrow their liver – Levin thinks stimulating tissue with electricity could do the same for severed limbs and failed organs. He has already “coaxed frogs to regenerate severed legs and tadpoles to grow new eyeballs on their stomach”.