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Who owns the Nile?

On a river that flows upward, Egypt lives downstream ... but that doesn't mean it goes thirsty.

Boats sail on the river Nile in Cairo, March 9, 2009. Two pyramids are seen in the background. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

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.