Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Shared Water Resources in Egypt

The Nile river- Shared Water Resources in Egypt
Photo 1: River Nile, Egypt. (Source: Roderick Eime, Flickr)

Shared Surface and Groundwater Resources

The international aspect is a crucial factor in Egyptian water policy because the main surface and groundwater resources all originate outside the country’s borders. The Nile River is shared between 11 countries, groundwater resources are closely linked to the Nubian sandstone aquifer and fossil groundwater in the south-west of the country is shared with Libya, Chad and Sudan.

Figure 1. The Nubian sandstone aquifer’s riparian state land as percentages.[1]

Disputed Surface and Groundwater Resources

There is significant conflict over access and rights to Nile water resources among the 11 riparian countries of the Nile Basin. Known for centuries as ‘the gift of the Nile’, Egypt is dependent on the river for virtually all of its water. Any development of infrastructure projects by the upstream riparians, such as dams, irrigation networks and pipelines, is considered a threat to Egypt’s interests regarding Nile water.

In 1999, all the riparian countries established the NBI in an attempt to strengthen cooperation and provide a forum for consultation and coordination among the basin states for the sustainable management and development of the shared Nile Basin water and related resources. Yet, since 2007, an ongoing dispute over the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) has stalled the negotiations. The essence of the dispute is whether or not the CFA should recognize current water use of the downstream countries and colonial-era treaties, specifically an agreement between Egypt and Sudan from 1959, which the downstream countries consider to preclude upstream countries from developing their water resources without the consent of downstream countries. Downstream countries have been insisting on an explicit recognition of what they consider their historic water use and rights, while upstream riparians insist on their right to develop their water resources, which could significantly impact downstream river flows.

Tensions came to a head in 2011 when Ethiopia announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest dam. Sudan has been largely peripheral in the disputes over GERD, downplaying the dam’s potentially negative effects and throwing its support behind Ethiopia, while Egypt views the construction of GERD as a threat to its national security because of its potentially negative impact on Egypt’s water resources.

Treaties and Agreements

The Nile River has been the subject of numerous treaties and agreements over the years. Today, the distribution of Nile water is governed by the Nile Waters Treaty, a bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan that was signed in November 1959. This allocated 55.5 BCM/yr to Egypt.

YearInvolved CountriesMain Items
1929Egypt and Britain (representing Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda)No works to be undertaken on the Nile, which would reduce the volume of Nile water reaching Egypt.
1959Egypt and SudanUtilization of Nile water after construction of the Aswan High Dam to be shared by Egypt (55.5 BCM/yr) and Sudan (18.5 BCM/yr). Establishment of the Permanent Joint Technical Commission for Nile Water to enhance the technical cooperation between both countries and Nile Basin countries.
1993Egypt and EthiopiaNeither country should embark on any works on the Nile that could harm and affect other countries, and consultation and cooperation between both countries for utilization of Nile water, increase water flow and to reduce losses.
2015Egypt, Ethiopia and SudanThe countries committed to cooperate based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win and principles of international law to settle any dispute over GERD.

Table 1. Main agreements between Egypt and other Nile Basin countries.

[1] Nubian Sandstone Aquifer Response under Regional Development, K Abu-Zeid, CEDARE 2002. Available at : https://sites.stedwards.edu/pangaea/the-nubian-sandstone-aquifer-dispute/