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I.  Background

The Nile River is the main water resource for Egypt.  The Nile is one of the world’s longest rivers and is considered by many historians to be the birthplace of one of the world’s first civilizations.  It supplies Egypt with 95% of the country’s water reserves and is the main source for drinking water and irrigation in the country.[1]  Underground water and wells are scarce.  Desalinated water supplies are used for drinking purpose in some coastal areas, mainly in touristic resorts.[2]

The water from the Nile has three major sources: (1) the Blue Nile, (2) the White Nile, and (3) the River Atbara.  The Blue Nile stems from the highlands of Ethiopia at Lake Tana.  The White Nile comes from the high mountains surrounding Lake Victoria and joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum (the capital of Sudan); both rivers form the Nile proper.  The River Atbara, the third source of water, joins the Nile proper in northern Sudan.  The Nile then flows into Lake Nasr in Egypt, a man-made lake created by the Aswan High Dam.[3]

The Nile River goes through the countries of Egypt, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Southern Sudan, Uganda, and Ethiopia.  These countries make up what is known as “the countries of the Nile Basin.”[4]

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II.  Legal Framework

The Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) is the main governmental body governing the issue of water management and usage in Egypt.  Law 12-1984 on Irrigation is the principle piece of legislation regulating the usage of water, water management, and distribution.[5]  The law contains eight titles and 104 provisions.  Those titles deal with the following: (1) the definition of public water streams, (2) requirements to use a water stream for irrigation and agriculture, (3) the creation and usage of water banks, (4) methods and requirements for distributing water, (5) prohibitions on the use of sewage and underground water, (6) methods to protect streams for the purposes of irrigation and navigation, (7) sanctions against violators, and (8) general provisions related to conflict resolution mechanisms between individuals using water resources and the MWRI.

The law grants the MWRI the right to identify specific streams as public water sources.  It sets forth conditions and limitations on usage for farmlands thirty meters (ninety-eight feet) from public water resources.[6]  In addition, the law prohibits any modifications to main water resources and public streams without the permission of the MWRI.[7]  It authorizes the Ministry to abolish any previously issued licenses for the private usage of water streams.[8]  Further, the present law allows irrigation inspectors to set a specific schedule for distributing water to irrigate farmlands.[9]  It also grants owners of farmlands the right to appeal the decisions issued by the irrigation inspectors before the General Department of Irrigation.[10]  Farmlands are divided into multiple units.  Each unit has its own streams and irrigation network.[11]

Concerning water distribution and management, the law creates a private fund to finance the formation of new projects and development of the existing ones.  Moreover, it gives the General Director of Irrigation authority to ban the usage of any stream or water resources to ensure the fair distribution of water to farmers.[12]  Rice plantations are also prohibited in areas not designated by the MWRI.[13]  The Ministry prohibits any attempts to create streams without the appropriate authorizations.[14]  Likewise, under the law, the Ministry may issue an order to destroy a certain stream if such stream will damage neighboring farmlands and surrounding bridges.[15]  Similarly, the Ministry requires that permission be granted for the usage of streams for purposes other than irrigation.[16]  Finally, owners of farmlands must obtain permission from the Ministry to replace and install tools used in the irrigation process and in water distribution among farmers.[17]

The law imposes an array of fines against violators.  Such fines range from thirty Egyptian pounds (about US$4) to ten thousand pounds (about US$1,427).  It authorizes the irrigation inspectors to report any irrigation violations to law enforcement officials in order to stop such violations.  It also allows the inspectors to issue administrative orders to remove any violations against water resources.[18]

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III.  Intercountry Disputes Concerning the Use of Water

In 1959, Egypt and Sudan agreed to distribute the water of the Nile among the countries of the Nile basin.  The agreement allowed Egypt to have the lion’s share of water from the Nile by granting Egypt the right to use over 55.5 billion cubic meters of water per year.  This arrangement left Sudan with only 18.5 cubic meters.  Moreover, the agreement failed to address the needs of the remaining countries of the Nile Basin.[19]

In May 2010, the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) was established to redistribute water shares among the countries of the Nile Basin.  The CFA included Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.[20]  However, Egypt and Sudan did not agree to the CFA and refrained from signing it.[21]

The situation among countries of the Nile Basin became more complicated when Ethiopia announced that it would build what is known as the “Renaissance Dam.”  Tensions have reached the point where former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi announced that Egyptians would save every drop of the Nile with their own blood.[22] 

Egypt has alleged that Ethiopia’s dam, which is currently under construction, will endanger its water security by reducing the amount of water flowing into Lake Nasr.  On the other hand, the Ethiopian government believes that the dam will play a vital role in enhancing the process of generating electrical power and considers it a national project.  While Sudan has endorsed the concerns voiced by Egypt, South Sudan and Uganda have voiced their support for what they call “the rights of Ethiopia to the water of Nile.”[23]

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Prepared by George Sadek
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
October 2013


[1] Jay Vella, The Future of Food and Water Security in New Egypt (Future Directions International, Strategic Analysis Paper, Nov. 22, 2012), http://www.futuredirections.org.au/files/sap/2012/FDI_Strategic_Analysis_Paper_-_22_November_2012.pdf.

[2] Id.

[3] Hans Cathcart, Future Demands on Nile River Water and Egyptian National Security, ICE Case Studies No. 203 (May 2007), available at http://www1.american.edu/ted/ice/nile-2020.htm.

[4] Matt Bradley, Nile Nations Promise to Consider Egypt’s Concern in Water Deal, The National (May 25, 2010), http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/africa/nile-nations-promise-to-consider-egypts-concern-in-water-deal.

[5] Law No. 12-1984, Al-Jarida AlRasmiyya, vol. 9, Mar. 1984 (Supplement), available on the official website of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, at http://www.mwri.gov.eg/irrigationlaw.aspx# (in Arabic).

[6] Id. art. 5.

[7] Id. art. 9.

[8] Id. art. 14.

[9] Id. art. 18.

[10] Id. art. 23.

[11] Id. art. 30.

[12] Id. art. 37.

[13] Id. art. 38.

[14] Id. art. 39.

[15] Id. art. 41.

[16] Id. art. 48.

[17] Id. art. 55.

[18] Id. art. 98.

[19] Ashenafi Abedje, Nile River Countries Consider Cooperative Framework Agreement, Voice of America (Mar. 17, 2011), http://www.voanews.com/content/nile-series-overview-11march11-118252974/157711.html.

[20] Id.

[21] East Africa Seeks More Nile Water from Egypt, BBC (May 14, 2010), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/ 8682387.stm.

[22] President Morsi Calls for Egyptian ‘Unity’ in Face of Threats to Nile Water, Ahram Online (June 11, 2013), http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/73683.aspx.

[23] William George, Ethiopia’s Plan to Dam the Nile Has Egypt Fuming, Time Magazine (June 28, 2013), http://world.time.com/2013/06/28/ethiopias-plan-to-dam-the-nile-has-egypt-fuming/.

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Last Updated: 09/16/2014