Death (of an Agreement) on the Nile

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Nine countries that border the Nile failed to reach agreement on Sunday on a deal to share the river for irrigation and hydro power projects—a troubling indication that water rights will become increasingly difficult to manage in the face of climate change.

In May, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya signed a new agreement to divvy up the some 84 billion cubic meters of water in the Nile. That agreement angered the Nile’s northern riparian countries, Sudan and Egypt, who  have had access to the lion’s share of the 6,600 km river through treaties signed in 1929 and 1959, something its southern neighbors have long claimed is unfair (Egypt also has the power to veto upstream hydropower projects).  The meeting in Ethiopia on Sunday, part of an 11-year old Nile Basin Initiative meant to find an equitable solution to the hydropolitical dispute, failed to overcome the impasse.

The five countries that signed the agreement need one more signature for the agreement to come into force—both DR Congo and Burundi reportedly support the deal. Egypt, an arid country already feeling  stress from climate change, believes it should retain the bulk of the Nile’s water and  its veto power because up-stream countries have more rainfall and do not manage hydropower projects responsibly

“The deal can not be forced upon us. It will only be an obligation for those countries, not Egypt’s,” Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, Egypt’s water resources minister, told AFP. “Egypt has no source of water other than that coming from upstream countries. The upstream countries have many sources and aren’t managing our Nile properly.”

On Sunday, Sudan announced that it was withdrawing from the Nile Basin Initiative—a move that drew criticism from Ethiopia, which took over the chair of the group from Egypt on Monday. Separately, Egypt’s Allam told Reuters that a further meeting to discuss the Nile agreement would be held in Nairobi, Kenya, sometime between September and November.

Whether the Nile countries can reach an agreement in the fall is uncertain—conflict over the Nile’s bounty offers troubling signs that when it comes to water rights in the face of climate change, it’s difficult to make any progress amid such a cracked and daunting landscape.