How Water Rich Egypt Sits on Fresh Water Lake but do Little About It?


By  Henok Tadele   07/18/13

Pro Egypt Medias claim how Egypt would go thirsty if Ethiopia sips a single drop of water from the Nile River, since the former has no other fresh water sources.

For many of us in Sub Sahara too, Egypt is an arid water less desert who can’t do without river Nile. However, last year’s in-depth research on Africa’s underground water reserve uncovered that Egypt is 4.3 times richer than a seemingly wet Ethiopia.

The detailed research by the British Geological Survey and University College of London (UCL)  entitled ‘Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa’ published last year has uncovered that Egypt is the fourth richest country in Africa in underground water reserve following Libya, Algeria and Sudan respectively.

In fact it is so much richer that, excluding Sudan and DRC, Egypt is almost twice richer than all Nile Basin countries put together including Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Eritrea, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda.

Groundwater storage volumes in North African aquifers including that of Egypt’s can be as high as 75 × 106 m3 km−2 (equivalent to 75 m water depth).

The amount of Egypt’s ground water storage is estimated to be 55,200 km3, while Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Eritrea, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda combined have only 27,558 km3.

According to the research funded by the British DFID, Ethiopia’s rank in underground water reserve is also far behind Egypt as it is the 13th richest in Africa with 12,700 km3.

Estimated Groundwater Storage for Nile Riparian Countries



Groundwater storage  (km3)


Best estimate Range




63 200


37 100–151 000



55 200


36 000–130 000


Congo, DRC         


38 300


18 600–103 000




12 700


4340–39 300





4090–23 300






2040–17 900



























 The range is calculated by recalculating storage using the full ranges of effective porosity and thickness for each aquifer, rather than the best estimate.

Egypt’s groundwater aquifers includes: the Nile Aquifer, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, the Moghra Aquifer between the West of the Nile Delta and the Qattara Depression, and coastal aquifers on the North-Western coast.

The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System alone is long known to contain 150,000 billion m³ of freshwater, which is equivalent to 3,000 times the annual flow of the Nile.

Even though Egypt has massive underground water reserve enough for thousands of generations to come, some 97 percent of the water supply comes from the Nile River. That shows how minimal Egypt’s effort is to develop underground water.

Instead she built several small scale desalination plants over the Red Sea and the Mediterranean cost, and even plans to build many more until 2037. Surprisingly desalination plants are at least 10 times expensive than developing underground water reserves.

Even though advances in science and technology enabled to bring the cost of seawater desalination down to 0.50 US cent per cubic meter from 4 Dollar three decades ago, it is still considered expensive.

However, over the next decade or two, advances in science and technology especially in nanotechnology, graphite membrane and energy from desalinated waste water (a technology that enables  to generate power from the water  release back to the sea) and advances in other green energy is expected to bring down the cost of seawater desalination much cheaper.

If Egypt have developed its ground water reserve fully by now and added to its water source mix, it would have got cheap water from its own territory for at least for the next two decades until further advances in seawater desalination make it even cheaper.

Rather than fully developing its huge ground water resources, Egypt preferred to build the biggest army in Africa and the Middle East with staggering five billion US Dollar annual budgets, to scare off less powerful and economically weaker upper riparian countries hoping to deter them from developing any projects over the Nile.


For politicians of Egypt a huge military is considered as a robust insurance policy to secure the country’s water future. Which is not feasible from economic point of view and politically a disaster in the making as it only fuels hatred towards Egypt in upper riparian countries. It is morally absurd too, as countries like Ethiopia, which contributes 86 percent of the Nile River water, is denied the right to drink from it.

Whenever development project is planed or launched by anyone of the upper riparian countries, Egypt immediately starts to cry foul and threaten a military action. From Anwar Sadat to the now ousted Egyptian President Muhamed Mursi they all threatened a military action against anyone who contemplates to sip from river Nile other than Egypt.

Just recently, the now ousted Egyptian President Muhamed Mursi has made a bellicose rhetoric on a televised gathering, saying “We will never allow Egypt’s water security to be infringed; all options are open for us to deal with this. If a single drop of Nile water is lost, our blood will be the alternative,”

However, at the time Egypt dives itself into a deeper economic recession and descended to a seemingly unabated political chaos, upper Nile riparian countries like Ethiopia is getting economically and militarily stronger.

As Ethiopia is on hurry to join the middle income countries list in less than a decade from now public finance on infrastructure is expected to rise very sharply. Ethiopia’s public finance on infrastructure is already Africa’s number one as it shells of over 10 % of its annual budget on infrastructure.

Besides for many Ethiopians who from the very beginning fiercely condemn their exclusion from the 1959 Nile Agreement masterminded by Egypt, the building of any dam over the Nile is considered as justice served.

Perhaps, Ethiopia’s decision to single handedly finance and build the 4.7 billion Dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam(GERD), which is the continents biggest hydroelectric power plant with a capacity to store over 74 billion cubic meters of Nile water, is the most publicly supported project in the country’s history. Millions of Ethiopians have pledged one month’s salary to finance the mega dam construction. That is not to mention they did that during the time inflation hits 43% mark.

Besides Ethiopia’s ambition to be the continents biggest green energy exporter means several mega dams are under pipeline, that in the short term might decrease Egypt’s water supply though it will increase the amount of water it gain in the long term.

Economic expansion in upper Nile riparian countries means the demand for more water and energy will increase for house consumption, agriculture, industry and tourism.

Such developments would make it increasingly difficult for Egypt to maintain the status quo on Nile water.  Egypt has to hurry itself to diversify its water source and develop its aquifers in no time.


What hold Egypt from developing its massive ground water reserve?

One may question why Egypt failed to fully develop its massive underground water reserve despite its ability to do so?

Well, the reason might be its leader’s obsession on less important issues of politics rather than pressing issues of survival. Obsession with the Middle East is also one of them.

The other reason might be over reliance on military strength and the assumption that it would deter upper Nile riparian countries from any development activities over the Nile River, as Egypt is the Arab world’s super power.

Underestimating poverty stricken upper riparian countries ability to finance mega dam projects on their own could be another reason.

Egypt’s geo-political strength and its influence are also to be blamed. In the past Egypt’s geo-political strength has successfully enabled it to block the much needed international loans to Ethiopia and other upper Nile Riparian countries intended for dam building.


Why those tricks won’t work anymore?

Military Options:- Any military option needs to hold moral ground. Egypt’s self centered approach of being a sole beneficiary of the Nile water while more than 250 million people in upper riparian countries get trusty lucks moral ground. This Egyptian approach would make garnering international support almost impossible rather it back fires against it as it brings serious international condemnation.

Even if Egypt wins the war military action against upper riparian countries other than Ethiopia brings so little result, as they only contribute 14 percent of the Nile water. The cost benefit ratio will be too high for Egypt to shoulder.

War with Ethiopia too will achieve very little. Because, stopping the construction of the GERD without a total invasion of Ethiopia is impossible. As the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said no foreign invasion has succeeded in doing that over the last 3,000 years including several Egyptian attempts to do so.

Besides, by virtue of being land locked, Ethiopia and Uganda, two of the most active countries in building dams over the Nile are protected as it is almost impossible to bypass walls of neighboring countries unless willingly harbors Egypt. But no country in East Africa can afford animosity with mighty Ethiopia including Eritrea.

Geo-political influence:- Egypt’s ability to lock the gate of western financial institutions against Ethiopia will no longer stop Ethiopia’s ambition to be Africa’s power house as it successfully immunized itself.


Double digit economic growth has enabled Ethiopia to finance the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on its own. Continues economic development in the country will make self financing mega dam projects easier.

Power hungry Uganda too is getting dead serious to build dams over Nile as it needs several megawatts of clean energy to sustain its economic development. Just recently it announced the 600 MW Karuma hydroelectric power plants, which is going to be financed by the Chinese.

The Egyptian influence that kept western financial institution away from financing dams over Nile, especially in Ethiopia only kept them away from doing business with the worlds 3rd fastest growing economy dubbed by many as Africa’s emerging lion. They already lost billions of dollars in lost revenue for their failure to do business.

But who cares about western finance anyway? Thanks for the emergence of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRICS), their hunger to do business in Africa enables finance easier, with no string attached off course. Unlike the west the east doesn’t mix business with politics. That in itself makes western finance less attractive for emerging Africa.

Not only Ethiopia but most of the Nile basin countries are currently among the top ten growing economies in the world. That includes Tanzania and Rwanda. On top of economic growth oil discovery in Uganda and Kenya will also make them very important and economically powerful.

Long live to capitalism western financial institutions cannot afford to miss the golden opportunity to do business with Nile basin countries while others are enjoying the benefit. So why would the west let weakening Egypt to stand on its way to do business?

The coming of the BRICS not only make financial loans easier but it also brought an unexpected blessing as traditional actors like US announced its ‘Power Africa’ initiative in fear of competition from the new actors. The recent announcement by US President Barrack Obama of his seven billion ‘Power Africa’ initiative is one example.

Nile basin countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya is expected to be the main beneficiaries from the president’s initiative.

In light of all this developments Egypt cannot maintain the status quo on its Nile water quota. So it can’t afford to sit idle either. It has to hurry itself to develop its massive underground water.


What they can learn from neighboring Libya?

Being number one in Africa in underground water reserve Libya has gone a long way to develop its fresh water aquifers.


No matter how crazy and maverick Medias call him, the former Libyan Leader Muammar Al Qaddafi was dead serious on his country’s water security. His ambition to answer the country’s water problem and his dream to provide fresh water for all Libyans and make Libya self sufficient in food production has resulted the building of the Great Man Made River.

The artificial river sucks water from deep underground and with over 8,000 mile network of pipes ferry water from four major underground aquifers in Southern Libya to the northern cities. The project is believed to be the largest irrigation in the world as the government intends to develop 160,000 hectares of farmland.

Even though some western Media slum the project as the pipe dream of a mad dog, it enabled Libya to get over 6 million cubic meters of water a day. As a result Libyan Desert has started to bloom and the country’s agriculture is taking off.

Qaddafi may not was cost conscious when he developed the country’s aquifers but with better planning and cost in mind Egypt can do it by avoiding the mistakes Qaddafi made while developing the underground water.

No matter how lunatic he seems he was, Qaddafi’s water war was waged on nature not on his neighbors, so shall Egypt’s water war should be.

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