Why Water is an Endangered Vital Resource in the Maghreb

COP22 From Rhetoric to Action · In the Maghreb, water-related problems vary with the changing seasons—droughts, interruptions in service, floods—and can cause many deaths. This vital resource is increasingly scarce. In addition to the dry climate and water-intensive farming, bad government management and rising aggregate consumption, the region is a hotspot for global warming. The agricultural crisis, famines and climate change are often cited among the causes of the “Arab Spring” revolts. And thus, in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, citizens’ initiatives attempt to deal with urgent issues.

Oasis of Tergit, Adrar (Mauritania).
Ji-elle, 2010.

“As a child, I would often go walking in an oasis. I used to pick plums, peaches, pomegranates... But then, when the Groupe chimique tunisien and the Société des ciments de Gabès began their activities, the water table levels began to fall and this has directly affected second tier tree farming in the oases.” The speaker is Amin Abdedayem, 25, who thus found himself working to preserve the environment: “An oasis is inconceivable without water, without its life’s blood.” In Chenini, a small oasis in southern Tunisia, this agronomist is an active member of the “Association de sauvegarde de l’oasis Chenini-Gabès (ASOC)”. It was founded in 1995, following the demonstrations triggered by the oasis crisis.

The civil society is resisting on every front, in the desert as well as on the coast. Take the case of the “Réseau associatif de développement durable des oasis, the RADDO”, which CCFD-Terre solidaire has been financing for fifteen years and which encompasses associations in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, all working to save the oases. The ASOC is the network’s central hub.

Moroccan professor of geology and co-ordinator of the research team on “Geoscience and the environment” at the Moulay Ismaïl University in Meknes, Lahcen Kabirir is also the founder and president of the association “Oasis Ferkla pour l’environnement et le patrimoine (OFEP)”. He explains that while the oases have always been located in a dry environment, it is the “human footprint” which has worsened the droughts.

“Between 1970 and 1985, Morocco experienced a decline in rainfall rate with a severe drought in 1983. People then began pumping underground water resources chaotically” which in his opinion was the cause of an ecological catastrophe.

“Water resources are the linchpin of the oasis system, composed of family farms which have thrived for thousands of years, because humans were concerned to preserve their natural surroundings”. He deplores that this is no longer true.

Projects have been conducted by the OFEP which consists of rehabilitating two systems of “khettara” (or “qanat”) in the oases, a traditional method of underground irrigation which recycles waste water and makes the oasis a self-sufficient food sources “in which the farmers take great pride,” Kabiri stresses.

While the situation differs from one country to the next, water resources are dwindling in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as two specialists, Mohamed Taabni and Moulay-Driss El Jihad, explain. In fact a study published in 2012 shows that in all three countries, water reserves are lower than the world average of renewable water per inhabitant.

Worse still, climate change causes “further strain on regional water resources” with a decline in rainfall rates that could be as high as 10 % by 2020 according to a report issued in July 2013 by the Institut français des relations internationales.

Causes of water scarcity

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, water withdrawals for farming purposes represent 90 % of the overall consumption in Morocco (2010), 80 % in Tunisia (2011) and 59 % in Algeria (2012).1.

How did this come about? For Larbi Bouguerra, a former professor at the Science faculty in Tunis who studied water issues for twenty-five years and published five books on the subject, the major cause of the water shortage is the population’s lack of information: “People, especially in cities, have lost a sense of what we are: Mediterranean countries, characterised by erratic rainfall rates.”

And yet the knowledge and competences required for water management once existed in these countries and today’s situation could be quite different. Both Tunisia and Morocco boasted excellent hydro-technicians, but their competence proved no match for the Ben Ali system in Tunisia and the wave of privatisation in Morocco, as Bouguerra explains. Hence, teaching people to respect this vital resource is of primary importance.

Indeed, among the various citizens’ initiatives surfacing in the region, “La dynamique autour de l’eau en Tunisie” focuses on education. Last September, this grouping of citizens’ associations and administrative bodies whose brief is to think about the future of the Tunisian aquatic ecosystem, held a conference in Tunis.

Web applications to increase the awareness of the young

“La Dynamique is mainly aimed at mobilising youth”, says Hatem Marrakachi, a computer engineer and active member of the association. “We work a lot with schools, in particular those which have no access to water”, he continues. “The objective of our first visit is to evaluate the situation with regard to water access and then we return with a hydraulics expert.” Next comes the matter of getting the necessary work done with the participation of locals, while at the same time educating the children.

To achieve this, a digital ecosystem has been developed with downloadable web applications. Through “SOS Eau” citizens can report distribution failures and through “Tunisian Water Resources” these can be measured. “Waterbank” is a system of solidarity between Tunisians facilitating the transfer of water to those who have none. And “3edmenaa” is an application for children enabling them to measure the water consumption in their home. It offers a novel, playful approach to the issue of water waste, primarily aimed at raising awareness of the young. Finally, “Chajra” urges citizens to plant trees.

Along the same lines, the association Nomad08, a partner of the CCFD-Terre solidaire, has created a water observatory, “Watch Water”. Last summer the association spoke out on behalf of the protestors, thus representing other associations active in the field.

A political approach

While citizens are certainly mobilised at the grass roots level, no major changes can take place without governmental action and industrial accountability. Indeed, sea pollution is one serious consequence of industrial activity, especially in Tunisia. In 2013, The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), a partner of CCFD-Terre solidaire, issued a report on the ecological situation at Monastir Bay. It shows that the maritime pollution is due to two water treatment plants solicited far beyond their capacity and rejecting untreated water into the sea as well as to textile factories that also reject their waste water untreated. According to the FTDES, the region is now a “maritime cemetery”.

Hamza Hamouchene, an Algerian specialist in environmental and climate justice based in London goes so far as to lay the blame on a political logic, an extractivist model of development inherent in “neo-colonial mechanisms of plunder, dependency and appropriation.”

At the World Social Forum (WSF) 2016, he denounced extractivism, those activities which remove huge quantities of unprocessed or barely processed natural resources. Extractivism is not confined to minerals or petroleum. It also has its counterpart in agriculture, forestry, fishing and even the tourist industry, all of which make intensive use of water. Hamouchene also cited the case of an Algerian city, In Salah, site of one of the continent’s richest gas deposits but where the infrastructure is underdeveloped, creating a gap between the wealth the town produces and what it receives. The city is at the centre of the struggle against shale gas exploration which the Algerian government wishes to undertake with the backing of France.

Struggles that are spreading

In 2015, a revolt began to erupt in this region and since then it has spread. The inhabitants of In Salah have risen up against this fracking project: an Albian aquifer, a portion of which lies beneath the Sahara Desert, is the world’s largest reserve of fresh water, and the pollution generated by the prospecting activities would endanger it directly.

Action is needed quickly: the population’s food supply hinges on the water issue, with possible serious consequences for the stability of the country.

Also in 2015, for several weeks, the people of Tangiers demonstrated against Veolia, a French company that has been in charge of the city’s water authority.

The report published by the Institut français des Relations Internationales (IFRI)2 even establishes a link between water shortages, food security and the Arab Spring, the hydraulic crisis having had an impact on the food self-sufficiency of the most disadvantaged populations. The issue of water is therefore crucial in the Maghreb and the coming crisis will have broad implications.

1Note: Data for a given year were not published so that a direct comparison was impossible