Increasing Freshwater Availability in the Eastern Nile Basin: In the Pursuit of Actionable Niches

By Agustín Botteron

A niche is a hole, a space to put something, or a room where one can hide and feel safe. A niche is also a gap, a break in the continuum where a hand or tool sneak in to modify, create, or transform. As part of the Water Diplomacy | IGERT program at Tufts University, I am looking for what I call “actionable niches” in the Nile River Basin of North Africa to come up with creative solutions for water resource management, and help alleviate the potential water crisis.

The Nile River Basin (NRB) covers an area of 3.2 million square kilometers. This is one-tenth of the African continent, and is equivalent to the area covered by the eleven continental states of the U.S. that lie beyond the 104th meridian West. The Nile River flows about 6.7 thousand kilometers from its headwaters in central Africa to its mouth on the Mediterranean Sea, where the worldwide-known Delta arises. Eleven countries lie on this river basin and benefit from it to differing extents.

An intergovernmental organization fostering development in the region since its inception in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) subdivides the basin into two regions in order to better promote and set forth projects. The Eastern Nile subsidiary program spans Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Egypt, while the Equatorial Lakes subsidiary program covers the rest of the region.

My research is focused on the Eastern Nile Basin (ENB) (Figure 1), which covers 2 million square kilometers (60% of the NRB). This “basin” does not follow the traditional scientific definition according to pure hydrology, as even though it drains out the falling rain, it has an input streamflow on the Southern border coming from the Equatorial Lakes. However, the NBI has come to manage this region under that condition for three primary reasons: more than 80% of the Main Nile streamflow comes from this region over 3-4 months of the year and is characterized by seasonal and inter-annual variability; the Ethiopian Highlands offer massive hydropower generation and water-saving potential; and last but not least, the geographical layout of the countries allows for interconnecting infrastructures such as power, roads, and canals.  

Figure 1. Eastern Nile Basin (dark gray) and rest of the Nile River Basin (light gray).

Figure 1. Eastern Nile Basin (dark gray) and rest of the Nile River Basin (light gray).


Why study this area?

There are concerns among the international community and local stakeholders about a potential water crisis arising in the region, mostly because of climate change and population increases. One study by the World Resources Institute (2013) identified five different water risk indicators for this region: Ethiopia and Sudan are at high risk in terms of seasonal variability of water and flood occurrence, whereas Egypt features high risk under drought severity. Looking at the basin as a whole, even though it is far from falling into water stress, it shows high risk under the three indicators mentioned at the country levels.

When combining the climate scenario with the fact that the ENB hosts a population of 156 million people, growing at an annual rate of 2.8%—more than twice the global average—in low/middle income countries (World Bank), with a low/medium Human Development Index (UN), and socio-political instability, the panorama calls for hands-on action.

This is the moment where, as water diplomat, I start raising questions. Some of these are: Where is the water coming from and going to? Who is using the water, and for what? Is there enough water for all uses? Is it needed all at once? Is there a cost associated with this water?

I believe that the management of water resources (as with many other natural resources) is a complex problem where there are many variables interconnected in a very convoluted way, making behavior patterns and cause-effect relationships hard to find. Nevertheless, I still want to be actionable, so I strive toward sweeping the picture to let the patterns emerge, in order to effectively act and contribute to the resolution of the problem in context.

The charts in Figure 2 help depict this context. Ethiopia is a perfect source of renewable water resources, but hardly benefits from them. Conversely, Egypt relies heavily on water coming from outside its borders, and withdraws a relatively enormous share of the total renewable resources in the region. Both Sudan and South Sudan find themselves in intermediate positions. Are there not issues of sustainability and equity going on here? 

Figure 2a) Internal/external renewable water resources in the Eastern Nile Basin countries.

Figure 2a) Internal/external renewable water resources in the Eastern Nile Basin countries.

Figure 2b) Water withdrawals by sector in billion cubic meters (BCM) in the same countries. Graphs based on data retrieved from FAO-AQUASTAT in August 2015.

Figure 2b) Water withdrawals by sector in billion cubic meters (BCM) in the same countries. Graphs based on data retrieved from FAO-AQUASTAT in August 2015.


To further contextualize the problem, I point out four key facts that shape water resources exploitation in the region. In 1959, Egypt (then the United Arab Republic) and Sudan signed the Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters, allocating the annual flow of the Main Nile river at Aswan without any consideration for the rest of the riparian countries. Yes, it’s true that the political configuration back then was quite different than it is currently, as the African colonies were undergoing an intensive independence process, and thus there were not many sovereign nations worrying about water rights. However, even though Ethiopia was indeed a free nation, the agreement was bilaterally written and signed, and still remains in force today. A second fact is the rise of South Sudan as the newest country in the world. After many years of civil war and an interim period of peace enacted in 2005, in 2011 the South-Sudanese people formally declared themselves an independent nation. Thirdly, also in 2011, the Ethiopian government announced and began the construction of one of the largest hydropower projects, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River (the prime tributary of the Main Nile River), bringing new colors to the hydro-political canvas of the region. Finally, in early 2015 after talks, discussions, and threats, the three countries involved in the Blue Nile river—namely Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia—signed a Declaration of Principles, thereby recognizing the importance of the Nile River as a source of life and a vital source for the three nations’ development.

So what is the path forward, when Egypt needs more water to irrigate their land to feed their people; Ethiopia is eager to harness its hydropower potential and write its name on the list of industrialized countries; Sudan sees the opportunity to further develop its agricultural sector by having adequate water granted in realtime upstream; and South Sudan is flagged as the new “breadbasket” of North Africa and the Middle East because of its agricultural potential?

I agree with the UN Water/Africa statement that “water is clearly a major factor in socio-economic recovery and development in Africa. The continent appears to be blessed with substantial rainfall and water resources. Yet, it has severe and complex natural and human-made problems that constrain the exploitation and proper development of its water resources potential." Building on this, I believe creative strategies are needed to put all the pieces together. There is potential to “create more water” in the Eastern Nile Basin, and this potential has been neither comprehensively explored, nor summarized into actionable deliverables. I further hypothesize that it’s possible to shift the anchored conversation from the 84 billion cubic meters (BCM) identified by the 1959 agreement towards a more promising angle. The whole Nile Basin receives 2,000 BCM annually from precipitation—so what about changing the human relationships with and practices around water? I believe it’s possible to better use conventional water resources and fuel—the three “I's” around non-conventional water resources: increase, improve, introduce. I also think that actions should be deployed which consider both short- and long-term outcomes in order to ensure both equity and sustainability—the two irrevocable principles our Water Diplomacy framework treasures. Is it possible to create 100 BCM? Is this possible by keeping the eggs in different baskets?


I know some niches to work on

A small country, Singapore hosts 3.4 million people inside 720 square kilometers of territory (similar to New York City). This “big city” overcame water shortage by implementing the “4 National Taps” program, after 50 years of research and planning. Nowadays, the country is flagged as a cutting-edge example of water resource management, by covering its demand through the use of rainwater harvesting, treated wastewater, desalination technology, and water import from Malaysia. Is there anything to learn from Singapore and other places in the world that could be applied in Cairo and Khartoum?

Figure 3. Singapore. View of the Marina Reservoir, one of the reservoirs created by damming the estuary to storage harvested rainwater. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Singapore. View of the Marina Reservoir, one of the reservoirs created by damming the estuary to storage harvested rainwater. Source: Wikimedia Commons


More than 80% of the freshwater demand in Egypt is for watering land, most of which is done by surface irrigation techniques. This technique is highly inefficient, as most of the water is lost either through evaporation or infiltration. Drainage water is collected and re-utilized several times. Its quality, though, diminishes along the process due to salinization, mostly from fertilizers. Irrigation practices tend to be too internalized in farmers’ culture, thus they are hard to reverse in the short term. However, an interesting fact comes up when noticing that 57% of the farm land in Egypt is owned by 96% of the farmers. This indicates the remaining 4% of farmers owns a significant portion of the irrigated land. Is this a niche to foster change and save water?

With the finalization of the GERD in 2017, the Nile River Basin will become the first basin in the world with two large inter-annual reservoirs located in different countries, and no reservoir cooperation rules agreed upon. There is an overall consensus among scholars and stakeholders within the water management community of the NRB that moving water storage from the dry desert in Lake Nasser (Egypt) to the wet highlands in Ethiopia will be beneficial for the watershed as a whole, as evaporation losses would be lower and there would be more water available for other uses. How much water could be saved? Is there opportunity for such cooperation in the region?

Last but not least, both short- and long-term strategies are desired in this region. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is thought to be the largest volume of freshwater in the world. With a spatial extension of 2.2 million square kilometers underneath Egypt, Sudan, Chad, and Libya, this fossil aquifer might be an alternative to help cover demand gaps in the region. A volume of 8,000 BCM is estimated underneath Egypt and Sudan. Is it possible to draw some of this water while figuring out long-term strategies for the region?

I am exploring opportunities for action in these niches, looking forward to assessing them using metrics yet to be defined, and categorizing them into the complexity space shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Degree of certainty and consensus. A lens to describe different types of decision making for different types of water problems (Source: Islam and Susskind, 2012).

Figure 4. Degree of certainty and consensus. A lens to describe different types of decision making for different types of water problems (Source: Islam and Susskind, 2012).

Should you have any ideas in this regard, feel free to drop me a message at Agustin.Botteron@tufts.edu.