Four east African countries signed a new deal creating a permanent commission to manage the River Nile’s waters on Friday, putting them on a collision course with Egypt and Sudan.
Stretching more than 6,600km from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, the Nile is a vital water and energy source for the nine countries through which it flows.
The original colonial-era agreement gives Cairo the power to veto dams and other water projects in upstream countries.
Those states, desperate for development and access to more water to support economic growth levels, say that is unjust.
Despite strong opposition from their northern neighbors, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia signed the agreement, while Kenya, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were expected to sign within the 12 months allowed by the accord.
“We’ve been negotiating the text we’ve just signed for more than 10 years. If we don’t sign today I assure you that we’ll go another 10 years without having reached an agreement,” Rwandan Minister for Water and the Environment Stanislus Kamanzi said.
“The essence of our getting together is about moving quickly … it’s regrettable that Egypt and Sudan haven’t been able to join us,” Kamanzi said.
Under the original pact Egypt, which faces possible water shortages by 2017, is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic meters a year, the lion’s share of the Nile’s total flow of about 84 billion cubic meters.
Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous nation, where climate change threatens a fragile farm sector and population growth may outstrip water resources as early as 2017.
It fears that if it loses its ability to veto projects in upper basin states then the water flows it receives could be dramatically reduced.
Egyptian Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam said Egypt said it would take all legal and diplomatic measures necessary to maintain its water rights.
“Any unilateral agreement signed by the upstream Nile Basin countries is not abiding to downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, and lacks legitimacy,” Allam said.
The upstream countries said that the commission would be based in the Ugandan town of Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria.
It will have the power to veto energy and irrigation projects in signatory states or recommend changes.
“The resources of River Nile is for all countries not for some or a few countries,” Ethiopian Minister for Water Resources Asfaw Dingamo said.
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