Who owns the Nile?

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt, these days, seems to be defying gravity.

While Iraq, situated at the delta of the Euphrates, has suffered water shortages at the hands of Turkey and Syria, which siphon off what they please, leaving only the dregs for the battered Babylonians, Egypt by contrast has turned the natural order on its head.

The Nile is one of only a handful of rivers on earth that flow north, meaning the North African country lies downstream of 10 other Nile-fed nations.

In the natural order of things, that would mean water shortages and drought for Egypt. But Cairo has long used its colonial “rights” to reserve the lion’s share of Nile waters for its own use, with other Nile basin states powerless to stop it.

The situation stems from 1929, when colonial Britain, speaking for its sub-Saharan colonies, gave Egypt veto power over any Nile water-sharing agreements.

In 1959, Egypt and Sudan entered an agreement, in place today, by which Egypt would be allowed 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually, while Sudan would take 18.5 billion cubic meters.

The problem? Total Nile flow is only about 84 billion cubic meters annually, leaving little for the other countries. Compounding the problem for Nile communities is a recent Egyptian government report indicating that domestic water demand would likely soar past supply. According to the report, overall supply was likely to increase to 71.4 billion cubic meters per year by 2017, from 64 billion now. Annual demand, though, was expected to spike to 86.2 billion cubic meters by 2017. And that’s using a model that assumes dramatic decreased per capita water consumption.

“Despite Egypt’s population growth being stable at 1.9 percent annually, its natural resources have been gradually coming under pressure, presenting more challenges to the government in securing food and water, among other items,” wrote Reham ElDesoki, an Egyptian economist.

Cairo is rushing to compensate for the impending water shortage by looking into desalinization options, talking about charging Egyptians for water use, and trying to encourage farmers to grow crops that require less water.

But even as Egypt scrambles domestically, it looks poised to keep its hands firmly around the necks of its sub-Saharan Nile neighbors.

The situation of these smaller states is made worse by the fact that, in the early days of forming post-colonial nations, Egypt was already a strong, confident regional powerhouse. The other countries were in no position to challenge Egypt’s hegemony on matters regarding the Nile.

“Upstream countries have more leverage and can cause a lot of trouble to downstream countries. The Nile probably is the exception,” Mauro Guillen, head of the Lauder Institute at Wharton, told GlobalPost. “It's one of the world's longest rivers, but just three countries control much of it. Of them, Egypt is by far the most powerful and influential, which more than compensates for the fact it is downstream.”

The Nile countries have, for years, tried to reason with Egypt diplomatically. Surely, they say, they deserve a greater share of the river for agriculture, drinking and electricity.

A month ago, in Kinshasa, ministers from the sub-Saharan basin states drafted a plan that would redo the water distribution. But they backed down upon threat of Egypt’s veto.

Last week, ministers from all 10 basin states — which include Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi — met again, this time in Alexandria, as part of the Nile Basin Initiative. Many of the states again, and more forcefully, demanded new water quotas. But Egypt showed its muscle. It, along with Sudan, had already rejected the proposed quota revisions, and then it strong-armed the other countries into delaying any decision for six months.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif dismissed the contentious conference, calling the disputes a “misunderstanding.”

Egypt’s deputy foreign minister, Mona Omar, dismissively told reporters there is “no way” that Egypt would cut back its take of the Nile.

Whatever ill will the sub-Saharan countries harbor toward Egypt and Sudan, Egyptian authorities are confident that there’s little the aggrieved states can do.

Most of the basin states, according to authorities, lack the resources to build dams and reservoirs to take a greater share of the Nile and remind Egypt who’s getting first shot at the resources. Meantime, the rainy season makes for a short window of opportunity to work on projects. And by kicking the decision on water quotas down the road six months, the basin countries may be burying their chances at reforming the system.