On September 20th, Libya, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan agreed to a UN-backed Strategic Action Program to share use of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) that stradles the four countries. The program reguires the organization of a joint authority to manage the aquifer, which is the largest of its kind in the world.

This somewhat optimistic news of cooperation comes on the heels of two stories from Egypt and Libya that portend less than favorable outcomes for these water-scarce countries.

Just last spring, Egypt was up in arms over an Ethiopian plan to build a dam on the Nile. Some Egyptian officials even threatened to respond with military action.

Ethiopia maintains that the dam is needed to supply electricity to East Africa and will not decrease the amount of water flowing into Egypt.

An initiative brokered by the Gulf states has yet to result in a resolution of the conflict.

Although in all four countries local privately owned wells tap into the NSAS, Libya is the only state that currently exploits the NSAS’s water on a large scale.

In 1993, the Man-Made River, a $20 billion dollar, 3000 km long network of pipes, began operating in the country. For the last twenty years, the network has successfully pumped water from southern Libya to the northern coastal cities. According to current plans, Libya plans to use 70 percent of the water it consumes to expand irrigation and farming.

On September 3, however, water was cut off to Tripoli after the Magraha tribe stormed a pumping station and demanded that the daughter of former Qaddafi spy chief Abdullah Senussi, who had been kidnapped the day before, be released.

This forced residents in the capital to rely on bottled water for ten days and sparked protests over what was viewed  as government incompetence.

While the event underscores the ongoing security issues in Libya, it also highlights the ease with which conflict can affect access to water.

In light of these developments, the NSAS agreement comes at a time when the governments of both Libya and Egypt feel less than confident about water security and are eager to lay claim to this shared resource.

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