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Egypt, Sudan lock horns with lower Africa over control of Nile River

A colonial era agreement gives Egypt and Sudan rights over all water in the world's longest river. But a population boom in the Nile River's basin has other Africa countries clamoring for more access.

By Correspondent / June 4, 2010

A pump in eastern Cairo flows with water drawn from the Nile River.

Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

A war of words over control of the Nile has broken out between Egypt, which sees the river as its lifeblood, and countries upstream complaining they are denied a fair share of the river's water.

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Presidents and officials from half a dozen countries have been crisscrossing Africa holding talks in the latest escalation of a decades-old dispute.

At its heart lies a 1929 accord, signed during Britain's colonial rule in Africa, which gives Egypt and Sudan rights over all the water in the world's longest river.

The Nile Waters Agreement, which still holds today, guarantees Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile's 84 billion total flow. Sudan gets the rest.

But the remotest headstream of the Nile rises 4,145 miles to the south, in Burundi's Ruvyironza River.

Its myriad tributaries drain a basin the size of the Amazon rainforest across 10 countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt. Under the deal, and another reaffirming its principles in 1959, those last two have final say on projects affecting the Nile's flow. None of the others may tap into the river's bounty – for irrigation, for example – unless Cairo and Khartoum agree, and without that, upstream nations have struggled to access international finance to fund such projects.

"No donor or bank is going to agree to give money for a dam or an irrigation scheme if they know it's illegal in international law and does not have the backing of all the Nile nations, especially Egypt," says Salif Diop, an expert in international water conflicts at the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi.

'Upstream' Africa wants to rewrite water rules

Now, the "upstream" nations, facing droughts and booming water demand, appear to have run out of patience. In late May, in Uganda's capital, Kampala, five of them inked a new Comprehensive Framework Agreement effectively setting the ball rolling to rip up the rule book.

Egypt, and Sudan have so far refused to sign up and the go-it-alone pact has strained Nile nations' relations. Cairo went on a diplomatic offensive.

Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, flew in for talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Ahmed Nazif. Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, at the same time met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Burundi's leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, is soon expected to follow suit.

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