What We're Watching: The fight for the Nile

The fight for the Nile: In recent days, the Trump administration has tried to mediate three-way talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on their long-running dispute to access the waters of the Nile. In short, a 1929 treaty gave Egypt and Sudan rights to nearly all Nile waters and the right to veto any attempt by upstream countries to claim a greater share. But in 2011, Ethiopia began work on the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile tributary from where 85 percent of the Nile's waters flow. The project, due for completion next year, will be Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant. Egypt, which draws 85 percent of its water from the Nile, has made threats that raised fears of military action. We're watching as this conflict finally comes to a head early next year.


China's Plague: Doctors in Beijing have diagnosed two people with pneumonic plague, a highly-contagious disease more deadly than the bubonic version—one that can prove fatal within three days. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the lung-based pneumonic plague is very contagious and "can trigger severe epidemics through person-to-person contact via droplets in the air." Both patients come from sparsely populated province of Inner Mongolia, but are now being treated in a city of more than 20 million. Outbreaks of disease inside China raise special concerns because Chinese state secrecy undermine international confidence that published information is accurate. In this case, the WHO has confirmed that Chinese authorities have notified them about these cases. How China's government might handle information that the disease has spread is another question.

War crimes by Turkish-backed forces? US officials have surveillance footage that appears to show Turkish-Supported Opposition forces (TSO) targeting civilians in northeastern Syria. The (unverified) imagery appears to show extra-judicial executions of Syrian Kurds. State Department officials say they're also investigating a report of chemical weapons used against Syrian Kurds. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has called Turkey's reported violations "horrible," and said, "if accurate – and I assume they are accurate – they would be war crimes." It was against this backdrop that President Trump welcomed Turkey's President Recep Erdogan to the White House on Wednesday and pronounced himself a "big fan of the president."

Australian universities' China crackdown: The Australian government unveiled new cybersecurity guidelines on Thursday to address growing concerns over Chinese infiltration at Australian universities. The voluntary guidelines – which set out steps to enhance cybersecurity and improve due diligence in research collaboration – are safeguards against what the government has called "unprecedented" levels of foreign interference in the sector. In September, the University of Technology Sydney found itself in hot water after collaborating with a Chinese company with ties to mass surveillance technology used to track the persecuted Uighur minority. Beijing hackers are accused of stealing a trove of personal data from the prestigious Australian National University. Australia's responses come at a cost: Anti-foreign interference laws passed by Canberra last year exacerbated tensions with Beijing at a time when Chinese students contribute about $12 billion a year to the Australian economy.

The future of democracy: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the 2018 book How Democracies Die, have a compelling new article in the most recent issue of The Berlin Journal. In it, they warn that the greatest threats to democracy today "begin at the ballot box." The examples, they say, are many. "Like [Hugo] Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine...The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy's assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it."

What We're Ignoring:

Aeroflot Rules: Mikhail Galin's cat Viktor is a little overweight, but there's no reason Viktor shouldn't be allowed to travel safely between Moscow and Vladivostok. Russian airline Aeroflot has a rule that pets weighing more than 8 kilos (17 lbs) can only travel aboard its flights in the cargo hold rather than in the cabin. Click here to read about Mr. Galin's elaborate plot to get Viktor safely aboard the flight. (It involves a skinny decoy cat.) But Aeroflot has discovered Galin's scheme and stripped him of his frequent flier miles. We hereby call on all GZERO readers to devise clever new ways to smuggle fat cats onto Aeroflot flights. #FightThePower

Scientists, engineers and technologists are turning to nature in search of solutions to climate change. Biomimicry is now being applied in the energy sector, medicine, architecture, communications, transport and agriculture in a bid to make human life on this planet more sustainable and limit the impacts of global warming. New inventions have been inspired by humpback whales, kingfishers and mosquitoes.

Learn more at Eniday: Energy Is A Good Story

The Trump administration's Middle East peace plan – three years in the making—is expected to be revealed tomorrow at a joint White House press conference between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Recall that the economic part of the plan, which calls for $50 billion of international investment to boost the Palestinian economy, was released last summer to weak applause, because it didn't include a framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here are a few things to look for when more details are released tomorrow.

More

The 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucuses, a critical early contest on the path to winning the nomination, will take place on Monday, February 3rd. After that, the pace of the primaries picks up fast, with important contests in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Here's the latest polling of the frontrunners in each of those states. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tops polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, but former Vice President Joe Biden is number one in Nevada and has a commanding lead in South Carolina.

John Bolton's book: Details of former US National Security Advisor John Bolton's hotly-anticipated White House memoir, "The Room Where it Happened" have started to leak, including an allegation that President Trump was explicit about holding up security aid unless Ukraine investigated his Democratic rivals. This will intensify pressure on moderate Senate Republicans to join Democrats in calling for Bolton and other direct witnesses to the President's conduct to testify under oath in the impeachment trial. This may also provide an opening for Democrats to lobby Chief Justice John Roberts – who is presiding over the Senate trial – to subpoena Bolton himself. We're watching to see how Republicans in the Senate respond to this new pressure.

More

51: Following a recent uptick in Taliban violence, Afghan security forces have struck back, killing at least 51 of the group's fighters in recent days. This comes amid a renewed stalemate in US-Taliban peace talks that recommenced in Doha last week.

More