By Achref Chibani
North African communities have a long history of water management and governance. From millennia-old underground water channels and other methods of water storage and collection, to 20th century dam and hydropower projects, humans have long intervened in the region’s hydrologic cycle. Such infrastructure and water management techniques reflect the historic importance of the careful conservation and transportation of water in North Africa. However, the growing global climate emergency is placing ever greater stresses on North Africa’s water infrastructure, as the level, intensity, and variability of seasonal precipitation are radically changing along with the climate. It is important to take a wide-angle view of the nexus between climate change and water scarcity in the region and to implement a multilevel approach to water scarcity that is attentive to local, national, and regional needs. Such a stance pushes against the tendency to consider water politics and solutions to climate change as being bound by the borders of the nation-state. Both extant water distribution and the social, political, and economic stresses that water scarcity is producing demand an ability to move between and compare across different scales. This approach is all the more pertinent in North Africa, where multiple countries share similar geological, geographical, and hydrological features.
North Africa is one of the most water-stressed regions in the world. The World Resources Institute labels Libya, for example, as suffering extreme water stress, while Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are considered to be under high water stress, and Mauritania faces medium to high water stress. Water scarcity in North Africa and around the world has been exacerbated by rapid population increases associated with multiple factors, including rising income levels and growing urbanization. A country is deemed to be water stressed when its total renewable freshwater resources range between 1,000 cubic meters and 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. According to World Bank data from 2018, North Africa is largely comprised of water-scarce nations, with an average of less than 1,000 cubic meters of renewable fresh water per person per year.
According to World Bank data from 2018, North Africa is largely comprised of water-scarce nations, with an average of less than 1,000 cubic meters of renewable fresh water per person per year.
The fact that these nations face similar challenges is not surprising, as the countries of North Africa share similar climatic systems comprising a temperate climate along the Mediterranean coast and arid or semi-arid climates in the Sahara to the south. In Morocco and Algeria (and to a lesser extent Tunisia), the Atlas Mountains are an important source of rainfall. However, the region has seen increasing droughts and forest fires in recent years. The 2022 growing season, for example, saw severe drought across North Africa’s grain belt, while devastating wildfires have become a common feature of North African summers, and have been particularly acute in Algeria’s tinder dry forests. Rainfall is expected to decline further in the coming years, which will pose a significant challenge for a region in which less than 10 percent of the total territory receives more than 300 mm of precipitation per year.
Sustainable Irrigation Practices
Water scarcity will impact the region in myriad ways. Cuts to the public water supply, declines in hydroelectric capacity, and knock-on effects from a lack of reliable water resources in industries ranging from manufacturing to tourism will all produce substantial social, economic, and political vulnerabilities. Agriculture, however, will be most severely affected.
Climate change has already had a direct influence on agriculture, and poses a serious danger to the region’s food security and its way of life. Poor, rural communities in North Africa are finding it challenging in the face of climatic variability to maintain agricultural production and to thereby secure their livelihoods. Agriculture is a water-intensive activity, and is therefore highly vulnerable to changes in rainfall. In Morocco, for example, the agricultural sector accounts for 85 percent of the country’s water consumption. The sector is also a major employer, with 20 to 33 percent of Tunisia and Morocco’s labor force employed in the irrigated agriculture sector. And agriculture generates between 10 and 20 percent of GDP and exports for Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. In North Africa, farmers often combine traditional and capitalist farming practices, and irrigated agriculture in the region deploys a range of techniques with varying levels of water efficiency.
In North Africa, farmers often combine traditional and capitalist farming practices, and irrigated agriculture in the region deploys a range of techniques with varying levels of water efficiency.
Irrigated agriculture, especially when combined with the pesticides and fertilizers that are associated with intensive crop growing techniques, can cause lasting damage to the land. In Tunisia, which saw an increase in land devoted to irrigated agriculture—from 250,000 hectares in 1990 to 450,470 in 2010— irrigation is leading to the overexploitation of groundwater, a decline in soil fertility, and an increase in soil salinity and erosion. Moreover, scientists fear that the use of wastewater irrigation is leading to the presence of heavy metals in the food chain.
However, North Africa has a rich history of traditional irrigation systems that could be employed when designing sustainable water management systems today. For example, in the oasis of Adrar in Algeria, a 2,000 kilometer-long system of underground pipes, known as foggaras, draws water from aquifers to palm groves, offering one of many alternative and sustainable models for irrigation and land use. Meanwhile, in northern Tunisia, a technique known as ramli—meaning “on sand”—has been used since at least the 17th century to allow for cultivation on exposed coastal lagoons. The method combines a passive irrigation system in which freshwater is stored in the sandy soil and prevented from mixing with the saltier groundwater below, while a network of fruit trees and shrubs acts as a barrier from wind and sea spray, slowing down evaporation and fixing the soil in place. Both UNESCO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have recognized the significance of these water management techniques, which point to the wealth of local agricultural knowledge in the region. More importantly, both techniques could be adapted to other contexts.
To combat water scarcity, farmers across the region must look to move away from the kinds of water-intensive monocultures that were promoted by international agribusinesses during the green revolution of the 1950s and 60s. In Tunisia, for example, traditional crop varieties have proven to be more resilient to variations in rainfall, temperature, and humidity. They also empower local farmers who note their superior yields. Farmers’ efforts to use heirloom varieties in order to adapt to a changing environment also line up with calls from climate activists for the storage of seeds in gene banks around the world. In May 2022, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas opened a gene bank in Morocco, which will pursue research on hardy plants and crops from the region. Together, the use of traditional Tunisian seed varieties and the Moroccan gene bank point to the way forward for developing hardy food systems in North Africa.
Urbanization and Domestic Water Infrastructure
North Africa has experienced urban population growth in cities along its Mediterranean coast, with the region’s urban population increasing from approximately 34 percent of the total in the 1960s to 56 percent in 2019. These population centers are often far from inland groundwater and mountainous areas with higher rainfall. A paramount challenge has therefore been to design infrastructure to transport water to urban centers. In Libya, for example, the Great Man-Made River project was inaugurated in 1984 to transport groundwater from desert aquifers to the country’s coastal cities. Now the largest groundwater transport system in the world, it transports some 2.5 million cubic meters of water per day to Libyan cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and al-Zawiya. However, such water megaprojects are inefficient, difficult to maintain, and deplete what is ultimately a finite resource.
Urban areas with high population density offer opportunities for greater energy and water efficiency, including green transport networks, energy efficient buildings, and water recycling.
Although it seems anathema to common sense, urbanization can also help to combat climate change. Urban areas with high population density offer opportunities for greater energy and water efficiency, including green transport networks, energy efficient buildings, and water recycling. But in North Africa, rural to urban migration has not been accompanied by environmental urban planning, and has in fact exacerbated environmental pressures and resource scarcity. In 2022, for instance, there have been water cuts across urban areas in Tunisia, including the capital of Tunis. This is worrying, especially given that Tunisia was previously applauded for having some of the highest rates of access to water sanitation among middle-income countries in the MENA region.
In Morocco, the coastal area around Rabat and Casablanca contains nearly 45 percent of the country’s total urban population, and assessments from as early as the 1980s noted growing pressures on the area’s water supply. Morocco plans to invest heavily in desalination efforts, with 20 plants to be built by 2030. The country’s embrace of desalination, which is bolstered by technological improvements in the sector and by the kingdom’s ability to harness wind and solar power, may offer a template for the region, especially given the coastal location of many of Morocco’s major cities. However, as a recent World Bank report notes, there remains a need for “clear mechanisms for cost-sharing at regional or national scale,” and for clear coordination between the country’s energy and water sectors, especially given the high energy requirements of desalination.
Groundwater: A Sustainable Source?
While North Africa does not generally face political dynamics caused by transnational rivers, it does have a number of aquifers that cross national borders. These transnational aquifers highlight the need for regional cooperation regarding water resilience. Many times, aquifers are assumed to contain an essentially endless water supply, but what such assumptions fail to realize is that these complex hydrological systems rely on low recharge rates and suffer from unsustainable water extraction.
The Bounaïm-Tafna basin, for example, which covers some 2,650 km², is an important water resource for agriculture in both Morocco and Algeria. Due to the ongoing conflict between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara, the basin has suffered from mismanagement and what researchers have called a “politics of silence and non-cooperation.” The basin’s many bore holes on both sides of the border have seen few efforts at water management, making the basin subject to overexploitation and to dangerous levels of nitrate pollution. The improvement of water quality and management thus requires bilateral cooperation between Morocco and Algeria, specifically the exchange of scientific data and an increase in technical cooperation.
The improvement of water quality and management thus requires bilateral cooperation between Morocco and Algeria, specifically the exchange of scientific data and an increase in technical cooperation.
There are precedents for such cooperation on transnational water resources. Since the 1960s, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia have collaboratively managed the vast North Western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS), which covers approximately one million km² and is the primary water source for 4.6 million people. In 1992, the management of the NWSAS was formalized under the Sahara and Sahel Observatory, which is headquartered in Tunis and includes 22 African countries as signatories. The NWSAS project has worked to improve knowledge about the basin, the pressures it faces and the utilization its water resources. Nevertheless, the aquifer continues to face falling water levels and soil salination, putting livelihoods at risk across the three countries it supplies. Unfortunately, there are limits to transnational cooperation when participating countries are under acute water stress, and when domestic needs trump regional cooperation.
A Multilevel Approach
Going forward, water stresses and vulnerabilities will continue to be felt by populations across North Africa. As annual rainfall rates decrease, the region will see multifarious downstream impacts on agriculture, industry, and the natural environment. This will, in turn, affect many of the factors that are most necessary for people to lead a dignified life, such as food, hygiene, and health. As with climate change more generally, it is poor households that are most vulnerable to water scarcity. Adaptation and resilience initiatives must therefore be directed toward these communities. Achieving water sustainability ultimately requires a multilevel approach that takes into account the relationship between urban and rural needs, and between local, regional, and national levels. Most importantly, efforts in this regard must be supported by strong administrative structures that span multiple sectors and stakeholders.
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