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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.

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.