The Ground Water Potential of the North African Region and the Nile Issue

15 mins read

By Miniye Betru
published on April 7, 2014
dedicated to my colleague, Asmamaw Temesgen


In the early 1990s, I worked as an exploration geologist at the Geological Surveys of Ethiopia in an endeavor to achieve further studies in Earth Sciences. During this period, together with a resident colleague from the World Bank, we traveled to the Blue Nile Basin to assess the Petroleum Potential of Ethiopia. As soon as my associate and I had arrived, we encountered what appeared to be an Egyptian diplomat on site, documenting the Blue Nile basin catchment area on camera. At that moment, I happen to recall my colleague saying that “these Egyptians are spoiled by this milk (referring to the Nile) while they have their own beef (a reference to the massive underground freshwater reserve, i.e., the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System-NSAS) out there”. This piece of writing here in after underscores to the importance of NSAS.

This article was devised to give a brief overview of the Geo-scientific information and economic potential of the enormous natural water reserve in the North African Region. While the overall focus was designed to bring attention to the growing water resource demands of the region, particularly mentioned on the “Nile River Saga”. It is aimed to draw more attention to some of the more relevant information about the groundwater potential of the region, that has always not been revealed from the Egyptians standpoint. It also attempts to connect the information gap and various aspects of dealing with the Nile Issue.

Additionally, it is arranged in a way to allow the readers to clearly understand the importance of the massive water potential in the North African Region. A map entitled “Plumbing the Sahara” from The Economist Magazine and Estimation of Groundwater Storage in the Nubian Aquifer System of North Africa [5] is used as the central theme for the argumentative analysis used in this article. This piece of writing on the other hand tries to weight on the current misguided anxiety on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).


Africa, as an economy is skyrocketing and transforming on an unprecedented scale. In the year 2013 alone, about the start of GERD, the infrastructural boom in Africa has seen an investment potential increase of 322 mega-projects at an estimated cost of 222.7 billion dollars [3]. As part of the pack, Ethiopia is vying to benefit from its natural resources and geographical position to be one of the top energy powers of Africa. Despite the facts, however, Egypt is not necessarily moving in overall favor of the continent’s developmental objectives and ambitions. During the present global geopolitical atmosphere, the only adversary Africa has ever truly wrestled with is poverty, not one African country against another.

For many decades, the downstream Nile Basin countries (Egypt in particular) have disputed over the use of the Nile River in questions of population growth and scarcity of rainfall. Nevertheless, other countries located in about the same geographical region, particularly those with little to no annual rainfall precipitation, have used their natural resources as it should be used and have registered as one of the many wonders of the world. Even other nations have flourished by using their natural resources for the common welfare through bilateral agreements. An example of a bilateral agreement is China and India negotiating the details over the Brahmaputra Dam and both managing to benefit from their pooled resources.

Unlike Ethiopia and Egypt, these two countries had placed aside their differences to take advantage of the Brahmaputra Dam Development Project. They have focused on the river Brahmaputra or Yarlung Tsangpo for potential hydroelectrical development and positive aspects of its use. The reason, China had wanted the dam to be built on the Tibetan stretch of the river to ease the power shortage for the people in that region. India had agreed so that they would make sure that the flow of the river and the people’s lives would not be affected by the dam. On the other hand, in Africa, Ethiopia has done as well as China and India in their attempt, and strived to persuade Egypt that the potential Nile power source would be built by international standards and with all environmental considerations, also to benefit the adjacent countries in the region. Despite these assurances, the issue has not been perceived with the right intentions by some Egyptian politicians and several of their irrigation scientists. Regrettably, there also has been a diplomatic drift regression that has also contributed to misleading this reality. This reminds of the wise philosophical statement by Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948). He said, “an error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.”  Ethiopia has done its best and should do what it has to do for its inherent rights. With this perspective in mind showing the reality with “Facts and Figures” is an obligation to the scientific community.

Source: The Economist, Plumbing the Sahara [4]

Aquifer Reserves of the Northern Africa:

In 1953, while drilling for oil in Southern Libya, local workers had found to what appeared to be an immense freshwater reservoir beneath the sands. This vast underground water body has later been dubbed the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) and stretches beneath Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan [4]. The water was accumulated during the last ice ages and the reserve is estimated to be the equivalent of about 500 years of the Nile River flow and is expected to last for thousands of years [1]. This Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System stretching out beneath the four African countries is the world’s largest aquifer system and covers about two million km2 with an estimated volume of 150,000 km3 of groundwater reserve [2].

Countries that Benefited from NSAS Massive Resource:

The economic potential of this freshwater resource for the region is enormous. It is believed to meet the growing national demands and developmental aspirations of many countries in the region for an indefinite period. However, to the record, only Libya had effectively developed this natural water resource for its developmental shortage requirements. The particular mega-project has been boldly titled as the Great Man-Made River (GMR) of the world.

This project was put into operation since the 1990s with expert help from Spain, Italy (Egypt had formally applied pressure on Italy for the GERD Project), Germany, Japan, and South Korea. It supplies about 6,500,000 m3 of fresh water a day with 80% allocated for agricultural activities and the remaining 20% to be used for municipal and industrial purposes. This consumption is virtually equivalent to Egypt’s misleading annual demand for water and even greater than its net consumption. Libya, located in the middle of the Sahara Desert, happens to receive the smallest rainfall in the region. To counter this, they had developed a massive underground resource, by constructing an integrated network, utilizing up to 5,000 km of pipelines connected to about 1,000 desert wells. As of today, the project is more or less wholly managed by the local Libyan experts.

Table 1. Estimation of the Groundwater Storage in Nubian Aquifer System of North Africa

Source: UNESCO, 2006 [5]

Facts and Figures:

Water, especially in Africa, is a precious commodity. As a basic human right, it has limitless potential in private and commercial use. Egypt, as fortune would have it, is a country wholly bound in water. They are surrounded by the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, bisected by the Nile and Lake Nasser, as well as floating on NSAS and three other hydro reserves. At present, there are no pressing water crises in Egypt and is far from appearing on the World Most Water Stressed Countries List. Of course, there will always be essential needs to be addressed in the foreseeable future. As a result, Egypt’s irrigation scientists must always pursue their path through scientifically guided and targeted proper water resource management and planning to anticipate their needs. For any other country, alternative solutions are apparent and clear. However, if a country’s water resources are not addressed properly, then attention is diverted into the wrong path. Viable and alternative solutions are obvious and include the following:

  1. The massive underground freshwater potential (NSAS) that stretches for about 1,268,674 km2 (see map above) and a max aquifer thickness of 1786 m (see Table 1), with a total storage capacity of 259,294 km³ should not be disregarded as an option or the third option. This potential could generate up to 6.5 million m³ of water a day and could satisfy the immediate and future demands of water for generations to come.


  1. Identify the surface and underground water potentials and reserves of the country. Execute a national water resource plan, tackle priorities, and set up short and long-term goals.


  1. Advance and initiate national practice of education on water conservation and management to the nation. Focus on water evaporation from the lakes and modernize the old-fashioned irrigational systems.


  1. Encourage green technology and promote water efficiency to help decrease the amount of the Nile water wasted. As Egypt’s state-run “Environmental Affairs” data indicate, up to billion m³ of freshwater from the Nile River is wasted annually due to uncontrolled pollution by the industries and municipal outlets. Their conservative estimates document a volume of upwards to 150 million tons of waste dumped into the Nile river valley every year [6].


  1. Adopt and share technological transfer available on resource development and management in the areas of NSAS (the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System), flowing rivers-the Nile, wastewater treatment & management, and desalination from countries with technological know-how.


  1. Be a real partner in the water issues with upstream countries; conduct effective communications; organize scientific and technical conferences for common benefits; address concerns humbly; and use the surplus water resources jointly.

To uphold, it requires courage, change of course, and above all paradigm. Egypt’s intellectual action is monumental for the long-term mutual growth of both the Northern and the Sub-Saharan African regions. They can make a difference not only by bridging out their national issues to work together with other countries but also playing a genuine and constructive role in any shortcomings the region needs to address. As the famous Henry Ford once quoted that “coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress, and working together is a success”. So, let’s always work for the big success together as African brothers.



[1] Abd El Samie, S. Sadek, M. Groundwater recharge and flow in the Lower Cretaceous Nubian Sandstone aquifer in the Sinai Peninsula, using isotopic techniques and hydrochemistry. Hydrogeology Journal 9, 378–389 (2001).

[2] Antonelli, Tiana. “Libya: water emerges as hidden weapon” Goumbook” Online posting.30 May, 2011<http:// water-emerges-as hidden weapon.

[3] Venter, Irma. Creamer Media’s Engineering News.

<…deloitte…/rep_id:3182?…Cre..>. Online posting 27 Nov, 2013.

[4] The Economist Magazine. “Plumbing the Sahara” Online Magazine. 11 March 2011


[5] Omar Salem and Philippe Pallas. “The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS)” UNESCO, 2006.

[6] River Nile is threatened by waste, Global Warming, Pollution – Environmentalists, 20 March 2020.

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1 Comment

  1. 38%of the 150,000 billion cubic metres of the North African Sandstone Aquifer is under Egypt.In precise figures, she has 38%X150 billion cubic metres= 57,000 BCM. Egypt’s illegal share of Nile is 55.5 BCM per year of water. At her present consumption the aquifer will last her 57,000/55.5=1,027 years.
    Libya is effectively using the aquifer for all her water needs. Egypt can do the same.
    150 cubic metres per second of Nile water empties into Mediterranean Sea. By my calculation 4.7 BCM of water is lost into the sea. That is almost the same volume of water they use for domestic purposes annually. That is a lot of water wasted.
    In the 1959 Agreement of Nile water sharing between Egypt and Sudan, they allowed 12% for evaporation loss. If they stop using open canal system of irrigation and use pipe systems they can save billions of cubic metres of water.
    UAE and Saudi Arabia farm 40,000 hectares of land each in Toshka Project. If they are short of water they can decommission these foreign operated farms. Egypt also has the option of desalination like Saudi Arabia.
    In short, Egypt is not in existential threat of water as they want the world to believe.

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