Virtual water 'flows' of the Nile Basin, 1998-2004: A first approximation and implications for water security

Mark Zeitoun, J. A.(Tony) Allan, Yasir Mohieldeen

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This paper interprets an initial approximation of the 'trade' in virtual water of Nile Basin states in terms of national water security. The virtual water content (on the basis of weight) of select recorded crop and livestock trade between 1998 and 2004 is provided, and analysed for each state separately, for the Southern Nile and Eastern Nile states as groups, and for the basin states as a whole. To the extent that the datasets allow, the distinction between rainfed and irrigated production is maintained. During the period under study, Nile Basin states 'exported' about 14,000 Mm3 of primarily rainfed-derived virtual water outside of the basin annually and 'imported' roughly 41,000 Mm3/y. The 'imports' are considered to have played a key role in filling the freshwater deficits of Egypt and Sudan, and represent a third of the flow of the Nile River itself. Analysis of food trade within the basin shows that the equivalent of small rivers of water used to raise coffee and tea 'flow' from the highlands around Lake Victoria to Egypt and Sudan. Because the bulk of these 'flows' derive from rainfed agriculture, the virtual water 'traded' annually between the Nile Basin states is not considered to represent a significant demand on the water resources of the basin, nor to significantly remedy the freshwater deficits of the arid basin states. The importance of soil water and rainfed farming is in improving water security is highlighted. The limitations and merits of the inter-state basin-wide approach are also discussed. By highlighting the magnitude of water leaving and entering states in its virtual form, the approach obliges policy-makers to think beyond the basin and reconsider the concept of water security within broader political, environmental, social and economic forces.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-242
Number of pages14
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2010



  • Food security
  • Nile
  • Virtual water
  • Water footprint
  • Water security

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

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