Northern Africa has a number of large water basins that are shared among several countries. These include surface and groundwater bodies. The Nile basin is its most important transboundary water basin. Groundwater aquifers, such as the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which are mostly non-renewable and transboundary in nature, play a vital role in meeting basic water needs.

Figure 6: Mean annual precipitation in Northern Africa Northern Africa is Africa’s driest sub-region and is characterized by limited water resources. The harsh conditions in the Sahara Desert have forced the majority of the people to live along the Mediterranean coast and the Nile. The region lies in the arid or semi- arid climate zones, where dry conditions prevail all over, except for a narrow strip along the northern coast of the Mediterranean. Annual rainfall is highest along the north coast, and decreases southwards. It ranges from less than 50 mm in the southern parts (deserts) to 1 000 mm in few parts of the extreme north-western parts (Figure 6).


The Nile supports a range of ecosystems, such as the highly productive Sudd wetlands in southern Sudan. These wetlands and the Nile delta sustain important fish, mammal and bird species. The 20 000 km² Nile delta in Egypt includes lakes, freshwater and saline wetlands, and intertidal areas, as well as large agricultural areas and towns (NBI and others 2001). The wetlands play an important role in flood retention and release, maintaining flows in the Nile system and thereby supporting vulnerable communities long after the rains have passed.

Box 10: The Nile Basin Initiative

The Nile is the world’s longest river and traverses almost 6 700 km through ten countries, from the Kagera River in Burundi and Rwanda to the delta in Egypt. The Nile basin is home to 160 million people, but despite the basin’s extraordinary natural endowments, these people face considerable challenges: poverty, political instability, rapid population growth and frequent natural disasters, all placing additional strain on the resources.

Over the past four decades, various Nile countries have engaged in cooperative activities but in 1999, all riparian countries united in common pursuit of the long-term development and management of the Nile waters and established the NBI. The NBI provides a basin-wide framework guided by a shared vision: “To achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile basin water resources.”

To translate the NBI’s vision into action, a Strategic Action Programme has been formulated to identify and prepare cooperative projects in the basin. Among them are projects addressing issues related to efficient use of water for agriculture, water resource planning and management, stakeholder involvement, environmental management and power trade. Some projects, including those aimed at harnessing energy, are nearing their implementation stage.

The inclusion of all countries in a joint dialogue opens up new opportunities for realizing win-win solutions. It also holds the promise for potential greater economic and political integration of the region, with benefits exceeding those derived from the river itself.

Source: NB1 2001

Inland waters, not associated with the Nile, depend mainly upon drainage from the Atlas Mountains. These rivers are intermittent, with a discharge either to the coast or to the interior into salt pans or sand dunes (NEPAD 2003). In the desert areas, the inland waters manifest as oases, which are crucial life-support systems to nomadic peoples.

Various options for transboundary water sharing have been studied to achieve a more balanced distribution of the available water resources in the region. From a technical point of view, Congo River water could be transferred via its tributary (the Ubangui River) to the north to supply Lake Chad and the northern African countries via the Al-Kufra basin.

Being primarily agricultural economies, the agricultural sector requires the most water. The gap between water needs and available resources is narrowed in several ways. In Egypt, for example, where demand is met through the re-use of irrigation and treated water, two non-conventional options that are being implemented are water harvesting for agriculture in the Sinai and desalination of seawater in coastal areas.

Libya has adopted a different approach and aims at meeting urgent water needs through its Great Man- Made River (GMMR) project by tapping non-renewable resources (Box 11).

Box 11: Libya’s Great Man-Made River project

The impending water stress in Libya was recognized by the government at an early stage and its answer to the crisis was the Great Man-Made River (GMMR) project, which commenced in 1984. The decisions for the implementation and funding of the project were made at grassroots level by the Basic Peoples Congresses.

The project intends to draw water from aquifers beneath the Sahara Desert and convey it along a network of huge underground pipes to the more populous northern region to meet the country’s present (47 million m³ per year) and future water demands. The project will also bring a halt to the overexploitation of groundwater in coastal areas, which has resulted in seawater intrusion and increased salinity of the wells.

The GMMR project is massive in many ways. Within a timeframe of around 50 years, a 3 380 km-long network of pipelines will provide for the country’s 5.6 million inhabitants and for 130 000 ha of agricultural land to be developed. Non-renewable (fossil) groundwater, originating from 38 000 to 7 000 years ago, will be drawn from four major groundwater basins, each containing 2 500-3 000 km³ of economically extractable water.

At a total investment cost of US$33 700 million over 50 years, feasibility studies have shown that the cost of each litre of groundwater abstracted and transported in this way is about ten times cheaper in comparison with water from a pipeline connected to southern Europe, desalination or transportation by ship. The main part of the project is funded by the Libyan people in the form of levies on, for example, fuel, tobacco and international travel.

Source: NB1 2001

Water use is expected to increase with expansion in previously uninhabited land. The area of the Nile valley and its delta represents about 4 per cent of the area of Egypt. With the increase in population, at a somewhat decreasing rate of growth of 2.6 per cent, the Egyptian government has realized the necessity of accelerating its horizontal expansion plans into the deserted and uninhabited regions of Egypt. As part of this expansion plan, agricultural land will expand by an area of just over 1.4 million ha in several regions of Egypt, by the year 2017 (Zalla and others 2000). The Southern Egypt Development Project (Toshka Project) represents 226 800 ha of the total planned agricultural expansion (Box 12).

Box 12: Toshka Project – increasing habitable land

In one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, new and substantial communities are being created. Toshka is the new delta; a new civilization in the making. It is located to the west of Lake Nasser, and 220 km southwest of Aswan, in an area that once supported a thriving agrarian society. A land rich in promise, with great mineral wealth, cultural distinction and biodiversity, Toshka is poised for a reawakening.

Although Egypt is a huge country, nearly as large as France and Spain combined, less than 5 per cent of its area is inhabited. Yet, thanks to subtle contours of topography, state-of-the-art technology, and the vision of a people whose proud history dates to the very beginning of civilization, Egypt has ambitiously set out to completely shift its own demographic map through the creation of a new valley.

Specifically, the mega-projects call for an increase of habitable land from 5 to 25 per cent of the country’s area by 2017, development of agricultural production, and the creation of new jobs and long-term investment opportunities. Strategies to accomplish these goals include incentives to encourage farming, industrialization, tourism, community building, and infrastructure development. The targeted area for reclamation comprises 3.4 million acres in southern Egypt and the new valley, Sinai, and both sides of the Nile valley and Delta.

Source: MWRI undated a, MWRI undated b

The gap between water needs and available resources is narrowed in several ways. Water recycling and water harvesting are options that could be built upon for increasing water availability. In the agricultural sector, modifying cropping patterns and selecting crops using less water will reduce water use.


Northern Africa is the most water-stressed sub-region and freshwater availability will become an even more important issue in the coming decades. Increasing water scarcity may lead to water-related conflicts. For the western Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), climate change scenarios predict a rise in temperature of between 2° and 4°C this century, accompanied by a reduction in rainfall of up to 20 per cent and increased evapotranspiration (IPCC 2001). This would result in decreased soil moisture and reduced surface and groundwater resources.

Salinization of soils, which threatens food production, is already a concern in irrigated areas, especially along the Nile, and may worsen. Similarly, as a result of land degradation due to agriculture and livestock grazing, soil erosion is causing sedimentation impacts downstream. Erosion in the Nile delta has increased since the 1960s when completion of the Aswan High Dam stopped the annual flood with its replenishing sediment (NBI and others 2001). Another concern is seawater intrusion resulting from overexploitation of groundwater resources in coastal areas, where the main urban centres are located. The Nile basin’s most polluted wetlands are in the Nile delta, where irrigation drainage water, untreated or partially-treated urban wastes and industrial effluents have destroyed several forms of aquatic life, reduced the productivity of the fisheries and contaminated the fish catch (NBI and others 2001). Throughout North Africa, pollution due to urban wastes and agriculture are causing water quality degradation.


Improved institutional and governance frameworks may increase the potential to improve opportunities.

Egypt and Sudan have reformed their legal systems to protect water resources from pollution and misuse. At institutional level, both countries have decentralized water resource management and established institutions to support the participation of stakeholders in decision-making processes. Transboundary cooperation on water matters takes place within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative (Box 10).

For all sectors, water demand can be reduced by introducing participatory management approaches and applying key principles, such as the polluter pays principle. Measures are also taken for the protection of water resources and these include the establishment of monitoring networks with water quality indicators and the enforcement of laws.

Across the Maghreb in the northwest, awareness has been raised about the consequences of climate change for agriculture and coastal zones, and the communities who are dependent on them for their livelihoods. This has resulted in the political will to address the issues at regional level and in the development of a three-year vulnerability and adaptation project for the region (the Projet Maghrébin sur les Changements Climatiques). The project aims to achieve:

  • A regionally integrated adaptation network, capable of continuing policy development, information exchange, vulnerability monitoring and project identification;
  • Strengthened national capacities to respond to climate change;
  • Development of national adaptation plans; and
  • Deepened public awareness of the risks of climate change and the opportunities of carefully considered options.

Capacity-building is recognized as a basic requirement for water resource development. For this reason, training centres for water professionals have been set up in Egypt and Sudan. Professionals from other African countries are also being trained here. In the Maghreb, capacity exists within “Centres of Excellence” that, if suitably strengthened, would be capable of assuming leadership in the development of a planning framework to identify, assess and implement adaptation strategies in the near future.

Over the past few years, data collection systems have been improved. In Egypt, for example, a country- wide telemetry system was established for measuring water levels in canals. Databases were also built and data formats standardized to facilitate exchange of information.

Egypt and Sudan have embarked on cost-recovery approaches for the industrial and domestic sectors. Irrigation water, however, has been provided free of charge to farmers and, consequently, no conservation measures were taken.

Among the strategic options is private sector participation. Investors have been encouraged to own and cultivate new land using modern irrigation systems, such as sprinklers and drip irrigation. In addition, donors financially and technically assist in improving the legal and institutional arrangements in the water sector, developing water resource plans and transferring knowledge and technology.