Sharing the Nile

Posted September 27th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Especially in the Middle East, there are always people uttering dark apocalyptic warnings about the coming water wars. Competition over scarce oil is nothing, the thinking goes, compared to what people and their governments will do when water starts running out.

Scarcity, of course, is nothing new, and “water wars” have already been happening for some time. They’re not cataclysmic (and usually not entirely binary) like wars over a specific piece of land, which either you control, or you don’t. Israel and Lebanon have fought over a contested border with at least one eye on the watersheds and rivers on both sides. Iraq, Syria and Turkey have had problems over the Tigris and Euphrates, the present result being that the two great rivers are muddy trickles by the time they reach southern Iraq. I imagine there are countless other examples.

Egypt is now contending with the end of its own era of water abundance. A colonial-era treaty gave Egypt and Sudan 80 percent of Nile’s water. The upstream African countries are now sufficiently stable — and eager for economic development — that they have challenged this arrangement. Negotiations collapsed and now Egypt has until next May to rejoin talks, or face a new regime designed by the upstream nations in the Nile watershed.

This isn’t the kind of conflict that I would expect to spark a traditional war, but it’s uncharted, and fascinating territory. You can read more in my story from this Sunday’s New York Times.

One place to begin to understand why this parched country has nearly ruptured relations with its upstream neighbors on the Nile is ankle-deep in mud in the cotton and maize fields of Mohammed Abdallah Sharkawi. The price he pays for the precious resource flooding his farm? Nothing.

“Thanks be to God,” Mr. Sharkawi said of the Nile River water. He raised his hands to the sky, then gestured toward a state functionary visiting his farm. “Everything is from God, and from the ministry.”

But perhaps not for much longer. Upstream countries, looking to right what they say are historic wrongs, have joined in an attempt to break Egypt and Sudan’s near-monopoly on the water, threatening a crisis that Egyptian experts said could, at its most extreme, lead to war.

“Not only is Egypt the gift of the Nile, this is a country that is almost completely dependent on Nile water resources,” said a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hossam Zaki. “We have a growing population and growing needs. There is no way we can accept this kind of threat.”

Another Greek Exodus?

Posted September 17th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

While I was traveling I missed this fine story by Niki Kistantonis about the newest generation of Greeks flooding abroad because of the lack of opportunity. For much of its modern history, one of Greece’s most successful exports has been its young. It’s a common story in underdeveloped nations — the initiative-takers, the smart and resourceful self-select for emigration, and take their work ethics and brains abroad. In the early twentieth century and again in the 1950s and 1960s hundreds of thousands of Greeks fled to the diaspora.

Those  who remain, especially the ambitious and the well educated, find themselves choked from opportunity. She quotes a recent poll:

According to a survey published last month, seven out of 10 Greek college graduates want to work abroad. Four in 10 are actively seeking jobs abroad or are pursuing further education to gain a foothold in the foreign job market. The survey, conducted by the polling firm Kapa Research for To Vima, a center-left newspaper, questioned 5,442 Greeks ages 22 to 35.

The economic crisis in Greece has taken a huge toll on the country, and heightened generational anxiety. At the same time, economic opportunities are dampened everywhere right now, not just in Greece.

I just spent 10 days in Lebanon, long famed as the most debt-ridden nation in the world. It was striking during this visit to regularly have people ask me whether Greece has surpassed Lebanon in debt. Even one Greek banker I met had to stop and calculate in his head before concluding that Greece was barely ahead of Lebanon in debt-to-GDP ratio.

Greece and Lebanon have painful similarities: impressive human capital, speedy journeys from developing to developed economies, endemic graft, ossified political structures, and diasporas whose economic achievements dwarf those of the metropolis.


Posted August 29th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

During our vacation in July, I reported a piece for The Boston Globe Ideas section about the economic crisis in Greece, which was just published today. Two questions intrigued me. How much would the collapse of the economy degrade actual quality of life? And had the Greeks proved that market orthodoxy was partly based on a mirage by calling its bluff and surviving?

The answer, I found, was that average working Greeks were suffering substantial losses, and were bracing for far more in the fall — for starters 5 to 10 percent cuts in real wages and real pensions for many people, in addition to increased taxes. That’s not taking into account rising unemployment, social tension, and macroeconomic changes.

For Greece, the real test comes in the next few months, when the government tries to move ahead with the austerity plan it promised Europe in exchange for the bailout, and Greek unions take to the streets.

What happens next will resonate far beyond this small country’s borders. Greece is about to learn whether a modern state can withdraw entitlements that people have come to take for granted but which the government no longer can afford. For fiscal hawks, this is a harbinger of what could happen to the American economy when, say, the social security system finally goes bankrupt, or when the government no longer has enough money to fund Medicare. For Greeks, it’s something else as well — a kind of identity crisis for a way of life defined almost as a rebuke to contemporary liberal market economics.

Americans, the saying goes, live to work; Greeks work to live. As a credo, it reflects a Greek belief that a worker on any rung of the class ladder deserves security and pleasure in exchange for hard work. It’s not outsized salaries or short workdays that define the Greek model. First and foremost it’s job security: Until recently Greeks struggled to find jobs, but once employed they never feared losing them. A close second is the principle of egalitarian access to the pleasures of life: going out to eat or listen to music on the weekends, and taking your family on Easter and summer vacations.

From the outside, the Greek sense of entitlement is often misunderstood as a desire for some kind of lazy lifestyle. In actuality, though, most of the government and union workers raising hell in the streets work hours as long as any American blue collar or office worker; many of them, in fact, work two jobs — at a bank or ministry in the morning, driving a taxi in the evening. What Greeks have treasured for decades and are now contemplating losing is the kind of job security that most Americans surrendered in the 1970s. All those wasteful government jobs underwrote a vast reservoir of public confidence, and in large measure blessed Greece with a joie de vivre. Small entrepreneurs don’t feel as stressed when the government countersigns their loans and when they know, if the business fails, they still have a stable job at the state water and sewer authority.

You can read the full story in the Globe.