Adoption of Regional Strategic Action Plan on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer

The following post is by Raya Marina Stephan, a water law specialist and consultant, and Chair of the Publication Committee of the International Water Resources Association. Ms. Stephan can be reached at raya.stephan [at]

On 18 September 2013, the Ministers in charge of water resources in the four States of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) (Chad, Egypt, Libya & Sudan), and the Chairperson of the Joint Authority for the Study and Development of the Nubian Aquifer, signed an important document, the Regional Strategic Action Plan (SAP).

The NSAS is one of the largest aquifer systems in the world, composed of non-renewable groundwater. It extends over 2,000,000 km2 and contains about 540,000 km3 of water, out of which 15,340 km3 is believed to be exploitable.

Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS)

Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS)

Cooperation over the NSAS dates back at least to 1989 when Egypt and Libya established among themselves a Joint Authority (JA) for the Study and Development of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System. In 1992, the two States adopted the agreement “Constitution of the Joint Authority for the Study and Development of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer Waters” (see Annex 7 in the GEF Project Document).  Sudan joined the collaboration in 1996 and Chad officially affiliated in 1999.   This agreement is one of the few agreements worldwide over a transboundary aquifer. While the number of identified transboundary aquifers globally exceeds 315 (IGRAC 2012), only four have an interstate agreement. Besides the NSAS, there are: the agreement on the Genevese Aquifer (French, English), the Ministerial declarations on the North Western Sahara Aquifer System, and the agreement on the Guarani Aquifer (Portuguese, Spanish, English). It is also relevant to mention the 2009 memorandum of agreement and road map adopted by the States of the Iullemeden aquifer system (Niger, Nigeria and Mali), however little progress has been made on this effort so far.

The agreement on the NSAS, as its name indicates, is an agreement creating the Joint Authority (JA), which is intended to serve as a joint institution/commission for the management of the shared aquifer. The agreement provides the basic rules for its functioning, and its responsibilities are quite wide and large. For instance, the JA can, conduct studies on the Nubian aquifer, is entitled to develop programs and plans for the utilization of water, and can propose and execute a common policy for the development and utilization of the water resources of the aquifer. The JA can also ration the consumption of water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer in the member countries and, therefore, holds real management responsibilities. The agreement is, thus, more an institutional agreement than merely a water management one.

The first project (1998-2002) on the Nubian aquifer, the “Regional Strategy for the Utilization of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System” executed by the Center for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe (CEDARE), resulted in an improved scientific knowledge of the aquifer system and the consideration of the socio-economic conditions in the riparian States. During this project, the JA acted as the Project Steering Committee and was relatively active holding yearly meetings.

In 2006, the four States engaged in a second project – Formulation of an Action Programme for the Integrated Management of the Shared Nubian Aquifer – funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and executed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, with a support from UNESCO (see project website). The overall objective of the project is to establish a rational and equitable management of the NSAS for sustainable socio-economic development and the protection of biodiversity and land resources. To achieve this goal, national multidisciplinary teams in the riparian States were constituted and, with the support of a team of international experts, prepared the Shared Aquifer Diagnostic Analysis (SADA) to jointly identify, understand, and reach agreement on the priority issues, threats, and root causes of the NSAS. The SADA identifies the following key transboundary concerns:

  1. Declining water levels related to abstractions
  2. Damage or loss of the ecosystem and biodiversity that are linked to the aquifer at oases
  3. Water quality deterioration from pollution (industry, agriculture and urban)

Following adoption of the SADA, national team of experts identified the common NSAS vision and key water resource objectives as well as the ecosystems linked and dependent on the aquifer.  Finally, a common set of management actions addressing the key NSAS transboundary issues were prepared, which lead to the recently-signed SAP.  The adopted vision for the NSAS under the SAP is:

“To assure rational and equitable management of the NSAS for sustainable socio-economic development and the protection of biodiversity and land resources whilst ensuring no detrimental effects on the shared aquifer countries.”

The signing of the SAP document at the ministerial level represents an important step forward in building the cooperation process among the NSAS countries. It is the common and joint commitment to the identified shared vision for the cooperative management of the NSAS by the States and the JA, as well as the commitment to implement the actions.

7 Responses to “Adoption of Regional Strategic Action Plan on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer”

  1. Mirghani says:

    I am a bit confused by the essay confirmation that “the JA serve as a joint institution/commission for the management of the shared aquifer” ?. Is it true that JA is managing the NSAS ? And what management functions are so far carried by JA ?
    Recently (2011/12) I have reviewed all available documents, and the JASD-NSAS function has always been limited to joint projects implementation, it has been operating as a typical regional expert group with project based terms of reference.

  2. Archaic water- Water is a source of wealth and poverty:
    There are lots processes to get fresh water- I am frithened by the news to see this project proceeding further on a not sustainable aquifer. What happened to Lybia aquifers can happen to Nubia, too. Is not it?
    Archaic aquifers look to me a safety water buffer for the population as deep aquifers when they are used they cannot be refilled again. Other alternatives are existing- For example, virtual water ? (agriculture)-….Also, changing people behavior toward water.
    One need 1.5 liters per day (biological needs). Now with the tap water from aquifers and the chemical fertilisers or production activities,…the daily need per head is going to rise importantly (maybe in average1000 liters/person/per day).
    This would not be sustainable, in a world is lacking already of fresh sources of water because water is wasted, water is polluted, water is frozen…

    • Response from Raya Marina Stephan

    Dear Mirghani,
    The agreement creating the JA, namely the “Constitution of the Joint Authority for the Study and Development of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer Waters” (which you can find in Annex 7 in the GEF Project Document details in its article 3 the responsibilities of the JA, which are basically management responsibilities. For a further analysis of the agreement I invite to read page 16 of the Regional Strategic Action Plan. However, even today, the JA has not completely fulfilled its role, and its action has been rather limited. This is why, as you can read in the Regional Strategic Action Plan (p.35-40), an enhancement of its role has been planned.

    • Response from Raya Marina Stephan:

    Dear Georges,
    Thank you for your comments. I am not sure I understand what you mean by “Lybia aquifers.” The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer is known to extend beneath Egypt, Lybia, Sudan and Chad. With regard to the sustainability or unsustainability of the aquifer, I would suggest the UNESCO-IHP publication S. Foster & D. Loucks (Eds), Non-Renewable Groundwater Resources: A Guidebook on Socially Sustainable Management for Water-Policy Makers, IHP-VI, Series on Groundwater No. 10 (2006).

  3. Mirghani says:

    Dear Raya and Gabriel,
    I actually do not need to refer to the GEF document mention as I have a copy of the original Arabic version of the JA Rules and Procedure (referred to as JA constitution) of the Joint Technical authority The document contains nothing related to any management of the transbounday aquifer. It only emphasizes the study and advisory tasks by the JA members for joint projects primarily to understand the aquifer dynamics and member countries development needs/ plans..

  4. Dear Raya and Gabriel, thanks for feed-back and links- I try to make it clearer-
    So, I think to top up the UNESCO inventories, which are excellent one needs to add some real world decision making process.
    1-About sustainable development (SD)-Harlem Gro Brundlandt commission and the 3 pillars of SD (ecology, society and economics) is a tougher formula and a source of potential conflict than peace. It is a weighted triangle and can rise discussion how to keep the balance right.
    2- If comparing water with oil- Do you remember why Irak went on war against Koweit-I believ in some cases, it is likely to be the same issues, as with Palestine or other countries. (the underground water or oil field in the geography does not know any borders. Politically, it is different for energy security (water or oil)
    3-If we are not talking about the same aquifers.
    What is the rational of the decision in my project:
    - Outcome: (For me) unless people cannot refill deep aquifers – management principle 4R: refill, recharge, restore, re-esplenish for the water buffers)- risk of overpumping, salt intrusion…
    - There are lots alternatives… I will not attempt to use aquifers to supply water (except the shallow aquifers, or the country lack of alternatives….)-
    - My basic assumption is the precautionary principle- which says that if you are not sure of the future, keep the resource for tomorrow (if there is no extrem adverse conditions).
    4- Endly, a team of researchers found the best way to reduce CO2 quickly is to plant in Sahara the fast growing trees called Eucalyptus.
    5- An analogy with shale gases exploration in close contact with uderground waters (aquifers)
    France had the same kind of discussion (and making about a decision to use shale and sand oil)- UK has banned sand oil on the principle it is not sustainable at the extraction step of the process -Canada is prone to produce oil sand,.. )

    Ultimate: a France toppest court said the country cannot produce oil from sands or gases due to potential dangers to water aquifers (precautionary principle)- USA can make it because of a different regulation…In fact, each country see the resources differently through their own lens, which can also be outside the sustainble development principle, which is a new concept of development based on the resource scarcity, thinking to present generations and what resources will be left for future grenerations.

    Links for reference on dangers of using archaic water aquifers:

  5. h2olwpadmin says:

    Response from Raya Marina Stephan:

    Dear Mirghani,
    I do not share completely your view. It is true that the JA has study and advisory tasks. However, according to article 3 of the JA Constitution (which defines the tasks of the JA), the JA can also undertake the following responsibilities:
    • Develop programs, plans for the utilisation of water, propose a common policy for the development and utilisation of water resources, nationally and regionally, execution of the common policy;
    • Adopt scientific basis for the water management of the Aquifer;
    • Undertake to ration the consumption of Nubian Sandstone Aquifer waters in member countries.
    In my view, these additional tasks represent management competences.