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International water issues

The Nile river, the primary source of Egypt’s water, is shared between 11 countries. The first Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and (pre-2011) Sudan was signed in 1929. It allocated to Egypt the right to use 48 000 million m³/year, while it gave Sudan the right to tap only about 4 000 million m³/year. The remaining was allowed to flow unused to the Mediterranean Sea. The agreement does not allocate to Ethiopia any rights to use the Nile waters and also still binds Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Kenya and bars them from using the Lake Victoria waters. Extraction of the Nile waters had to stop in these latter countries and even in Sudan during the cotton peak demand (May-July) to secure water for this traditional Egyptian crop (El Qausy et al., 2011). In 1959, the Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan assigned to Egypt 55 500 million m³/year, measured at Aswan at the border with Sudan. The agreement was based on the average flow of the Nile during the 1900-1959 period, 84 000 million m³/year, minus de evaporation from the artificial Lake Nasser. Average annual evaporation and other losses from the Aswan High Dam and reservoir (Lake Nasser) were estimated at 10 000 million m³/year, leaving thus a net usable flow of 74 000 million m³/year, of which 18 500 million m³/year was allocated to Sudan and 55 500 million m³/year to Egypt. The other riparian countries are still not included in this agreement.

In 1998, recognizing that cooperative development was the best way to bring mutual benefits to the region, all riparian countries joined in a dialogue to create a regional partnership to facilitate the common pursuit of sustainable development and management of Nile waters. The transitional mechanism, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), was officially launched in February 1999, and soon created and prepared a Strategic Action Programme, which consists of two sub-programmes: the Shared Vision Programme (SVP) and the Subsidiary Action Programme (SAP). The SVP is to help create an enabling environment for action on the ground through building trust and skill, while the SAP is aimed at the delivery of actual development projects involving two or more countries. Projects are selected by individual riparian countries for implementation and submitted to the Council of Ministers of the NBI for approval. Pre-2011 Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt also adopted a strategy of cooperation in which all projects to be launched on the river should seek the common benefit of all member states and this should be included in accompanying feasibility studies.

The NBI is intended to be a transitional institution until the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) negotiations are finalized and a permanent institution created. This new Nile CFA was signed in 2010 by five countries–Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and United Republic of Tanzania–and in 2011 by Burundi. Egypt strongly opposed this agreement which gives deciding power over large-scale hydraulic projects to a commission representing all the signatories, hence cancelling Egypt’s historical right of veto. Pre-2011 Sudan, a traditional ally of Egypt, initially also rejected the agreement, but the new Sudan is now considering its signature due to increasing awareness of the unequal sharing and also hoping for benefits, in particular from the Ethiopian Renaissance dam, expected to be completed in 2017. Due to its proximity to the Sudanese’s border, the dam could provide water for vast areas of irrigable land in Sudan, as well as mitigate floods in the agricultural El-Gezira region and greater Khartoum. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is also still to decide upon the CFA signature, as well as South Sudan, moreover so since the water contribution of the latter is considerable. The CFA was ratified in 2013 by Ethiopia and Rwanda and in 2015 by the United Republic of Tanzania.

Upper Nile projects had always been considered in policies as a way to increase Egypt’s share of the Nile water to up to 9 000 million m³ additional, even though the projects were in upstream countries:

  • The Jongeil Canal in Sudan, the first phase of which was completed at 80 percent when construction stopped in 1982, would have “saved” around 7 000 million m³/year by by-passing the Sudd swamps. This volume would have been divided equally between Egypt and Sudan (El Qausy et al., 2011).
  • Two other projects in the upstream swamps, Mashar swamps and in the Bahr El Ghazal area, are expected to provide 5 500 million m³/year to Egypt.

Some projects under construction, however, such as the Tekese dam on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the Ethiopian Renaissance dam, will negatively affect the Egyptian share of the Nile waters.

The vast Nubian Sandstone aquifer, Egypt’s main groundwater source, is also shared with Chad, Libya and Sudan (Table 3). Other transboundary aquifers are detailed in Table 3.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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