The Threat of a Water Shortage in the Maghreb

The availability of running water in North Africa has diminished by 60% over the past 40 years. The rainfall deficit due to global warming, poor maintenance of the water network and the inadequacy of wastewater treatment plants are the cause of this worrisome situation which specialists call “hydric stress.” Its principal victims are the region’s small-scale farmers.

June 2019: dead trees due to drought in the Macta basin (north-west Algeria)

In February 2020, Arezki Baraki, CEO of the agency in charge of dams was reassuring: “Algeria’s situation is not alarming, nor is it suffering from hydric stress”. And yet, neither his country nor its neighbours still satisfy the minimal requirement of 1,000 cubic metres per capita, below which social life and economic development are impeded, if we are to believe the Swedish specialist Martin Falkenmark.

Consequently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the World Resources Institute (WRI)1 have both contradicted the Algerian official and declared the Maghreb in a state of acute hydric stress.

Unevenness of rainfall periods

Water-storage levels are falling because they depend to a large extent on rainfall. But Jamila Tarhouni tempers these observations. “The annual rainfall has not diminished a great deal.” As head of the Laboratory of Water Sciences and Technology at the Tunisian National Institute of Agronomy (CHECK), she knows that “what has changed is the concentration of rainfall periods. Whereas they used to be spread out over the year and could replenish the water tables, today’s rainfall periods are short and can be very heavy. This causes flooding and erosion because our land surfaces have been altered by deforestation and urbanisation.”

“Besides being shorter, rainfall episodes are followed immediately by dry, sunny spells,” says Malek Abdesselam, lecturer in hydrogeology at Tizi Ouzou. “Therefore the water evaporates quickly and the water tables are depleted even more: rain no longer dispenses farmers from pumping underground water.”

Inadequate purification systems

The Maghreb countries are expanding their capacity for stocking surface waters. Thus in Morocco there are 144 dams and Algeria hopes to achieve the same number by 2030. Tunisia has 34, twice as many as Libya where there are only 16.

All these countries are also interested in non-conventional water resources. There are more and more desalination plants along the Mediterranean seaboard. Morocco has floated a loan of 113 million pounds (130 million dollars) for the construction at Agadir of the second largest such plant in the region, after the El Maqta installation at Oran. Tunis is counting on a loan of 267 million pounds (330 million dollars) to build one at Sfax.

North Africa’s weak point is the purification of waste waters, since less than 200 plants are devoted to this task, of which 170 are in Algeria. France, by comparison, boasts 20 000 such plants. “And yet”, says Abdesselam in despair, “80% of household water goes into a sewer system which often ends up in the sea”.

To respond to consumer demands, large-scale projects are under way here and there. In Morocco, the Green Plan has been followed by two more: Generation Green 2020–2030 and Moroccan Forests. Tunisia means to plant 100 million olive trees, while in Libya, it was Muammar Gadhafi who brought to a successful conclusion the monumental project of The Great Man-made River. This consisted of a series of pumping stations drawing on Saharan water tables to provide the population with drinking water and develop local farming by transforming huge swathes of desert into greenhouse orchards.

However, in spite of all these efforts, the availability of fresh water per capita in the Maghreb countries has fallen by 60% over the past 40 years2, in particular because the water-stocking capacities are limited, partly for lack of maintenance.

Thus the production of the desalinisation plants is never up to full capacity, and silting is causing the amount of water stored by the dams to shrink. “Wadi El Kebir, the oldest dam in North Africa, built in 1928, is no longer functioning at all because of sedimentation,” Tarbouni laments. “The maintenance of plants and dams is defective,” Abdesselam adds. “The same is true of hydraulic connections. Despite governmental recommendations, contractors prefer Chinese equipment, cheaper than the machinery produced locally, but of inferior quality. Which is why there are so many leaks.”

Franck Galland confirms all this: “The Maghreb countries are stepping up the supply of water all right, But they don’t do enough repair work on the networks and pipes. Thus there’s a high rate of leakage, especially in the urban networks where the waste amounts to 30 to 40% of the stored water.” He is a researcher associated with the Foundation for Strategic Research (FSR) and he also regrets that “the war in Libya damaged the Great Man-Made River. Its infrastructures and pumping stations were bombed or taken hostage.”

Unequal access to water

Lecturer on geography at the University of Poitiers in France, Mohamed Taabani feels that “the principal victims of the water shortage are market gardeners, small farmers and small livestock breeders.” Jamila Tarhouni agrees: “In 2016 I became aware that during periods of draught, country people move around a lot. They leave their homes to rent somewhere to live in town or on the edge of a city, which implies illegal taps to obtain water.”

These population displacements reveal the inequalities of access to water. According to UNICEF, 36% of Morocco’s rural population does not have the most elementary access to water as against only 4% of city people. In Algeria, 11% of the rural population has no access to water as against 5% of the urban population3.

But these figures conceal another disparity: the frequency of access to the precious liquid. Thus, the Taksebt dam near Tizi Ouzou mostly supplies the larger population centres, including Algiers. As for villagers living near the dam and afflicted with respiratory disorders due to the humidity in the air, they fill cisterns, barrels, bowls and pots … once a week or once a fortnight.

The fact is that the authorities favour city dwellers. “Those are the most densely populated areas, they don’t want to indispose those people” is the way Abdesselam sums up the situation. But this gives rise to other frustrations: “In southern Tunisia, the water tables are depleted in favour of cities that are tourist attractions,“ Tarhouni tells us. ”There are more and more protests like the one in Sidi-Bouzid, where the population is demanding quotas which the authorities refuse to set, with no explanation. So the protestors block drilling projects and damage the water mains."

While in Algeria and Tunisia, water is used to buy social peace, Kadhafi used it as a political weapon. According to Mohamed Larbi Bouguerra, “there was a warning, a threat as clear as day: if you didn’t obey the Leader, your water could be cut off” .4

And to make matters worse, the millions of tourists visiting the region every year waste huge quantities of water. “The average annual consumption is from two to five times that of the local population,” Taabani declares, “And since tourist accommodations aren’t equipped with efficient purification plants for waste water, only insignificant amounts are recycled”. Tunisia has even set ”a consumption goal of 3 000 litres per day for each bed occupied"5, which is twice the local level.

The draughts put the social fabric to the test

“The Moroccan authorities are supportive of the oasis farmers,” Said Doumi is happy to say. The president of the Association des Oasis pour le développement intégré has good things to say about a policy of water conveyance which has reduced oasis depopulation: “In the oases, draughts have been very harmful to the social fabric and the economy. The lack of rain has doubled the encroachment of sand on farmland and the bayoud [a fungus disease] is wreaking havoc in the palm groves. Hence the oases are becoming disfigured, solidarities are vanishing and people migrate. But since the King has built dams to irrigate our fields, we do have running water.”

Yet the lack of rainfall prevents the dams from fulfilling the farmers’ needs. So they dig wells and siphon off water from the non-renewable water tables. “The wells are between 30 and 50 metres deep. But only the large landowners can afford that. The others still depend on surface waters, which is why I plan to dig a well in the centre of the oasis to preserve the palm grove permanently from the draughts.”

The problems encountered by the oasis dwellers are symptomatic of what is happening in every developing country where “agriculture is consuming up to 90% of all renewable resources,” says Galland. Just as in Libya and Tunisia, “the Moroccan water tables are overexploited, the annual extraction figures are higher than the natural replenishment” Taabani points out. “The over-extraction is estimated at around a billion cubic metres per annum, which constitutes a depletion of nonrenewable stocks.”

“Only yesterday, in Algeria, you drew water with a bucket in the Mitidja,” Malek Abdesselam remembers. Today the water table has gone down by 30 to 50 metres.” Jamila Tarhoui, for her part, believes that the Tunisian tables are going down thirty metres per decade because “there is no political strategy involving a concern for water resources and taking into account the needs of agriculture”.

Saïd Doumi’s account illustrates the political tendency promoted by Mohamed VI in favour of the emergence of a middle class of farmers. a policy which has its limitations. At the same time as “food security is a Moroccan priority, the public authorities are trying to reduce hydric stress by improving irrigation techniques and encouraging the cultivation of draught-resistant crops,” Taabani sums up. “But as this is not enough to satisfy the demand or—even partially—ensure social peace among rural farming populations, the authorities tolerate the over-exploitation of underground water.”

Small-hold farmers are the most affected

“The situation is not desperate for proactive countries,” says Frank Galland. “They have to raise awareness among their population, induce them to lower household and agricultural consumption and curtail non-food production.” Mohammed Taabani is of the same opinion: “The IPCC studies predict a rise in temperature between 2 and 4° C and a 10 to 30% drop in rainfall by 2080–2099 in the Maghreb. Logically enough, the dam and water-table inputs will decline in proportion. Considering the priorities as regards access to water, farming will be the adjustment variable when it comes to reducing allotments. Consequently, it’s the small isolated farmers, irrigating outside of certain collectively designated perimeters, who suffer most severely from the water shortage.”

And the geographer goes on to predict that “the authorities are going to use the price per cubic metre as an incitement to moderation. In rural areas, the difficulties of access to drinking water will persist. Which is why recourse to non-conventional water will be unavoidable. Solar energy and wind power as back-ups for thermal plants could make possible the development of small desalination facilities and lower production costs, but this would imply mastering the maintenance technologies required by these installations.”

1Rutger Willem Hofste, Paul Reig and Leah Schleifer, 17 Countries, Home to One Quarter of the World’s Population, Face Extremely High Water Stress, 6 August 2019.

2Moulay-Driss El-Jihad, Mohamed Taabni, L’eau au Maghreb : quel « mix » hydrique face aux effets du changement climatique ? dans Eau et climat en Afrique du Nord et au Moyen-Orient, Zeineddine Nouaceu (dir), Saint-Cloud, éditions Transversal, 2017.

4Les printemps arabes et l’eau : la Libye, Partage des eaux, 24 mars 2015.

5Eau et Tourisme, Luxembourg, Office des publications officielles des communautés européennes, 2009.