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Morocco invests in desalination plants as drought worsens

Located in an arid zone characterized by rain disruption, Morocco seeks solutions to solve water scarcity and ensure supply for domestic, industrial, and agricultural purposes
Morocco drought

Morocco is expecting a tough summer when it comes to water supply. The North African nation's worst drought in 40 years is leaving people without tap water for hours during summer times, particularly in the southeast part of the country.

"The 2022 drought is happening after four consecutive years of moderate to severe drought, which led to an exceptionally dry year in Morocco,” Youssef Brouziyne, MENA Head at the International Water Management Institute, told Al-Monitor.

In May, the minister of equipment and water, Nizar Baraka, stated that Morocco would be facing difficult periods due to a rise in temperatures and low water reservoir levels, which plummeted from 62% in 2013 to 32% in 2022.

In a 2019 report, the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Conseil économique, social et environnemental, CESE) revealed that demand for water exceeded the available quantity of annual renewable freshwater resources. 

Water stress is defined as water supplies below 1,700 cubic meters per person annually. When annual supplies are less than 1,000 cubic meters per person, the population is at the water scarcity level, and below 500 cubic meters is absolute scarcity.

According to the CESE, the water supply in Morocco is below 650 cubic meters per person annually, compared to 2,500 in 1960. This share is expected to be below 500 by 2030.

Professor Laila Mandi, Director of the National Center for Studies and Research on Water and Energy, at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech pointed out that Morocco recently launched a new national water plan  through 2050. Objectives include to "integrate all rural villages into drinking water supply systems, provide water for the development of sustainable agriculture, as well as preserve ecosystems.” 

Morocco has accumulated a long experience with drought waves. Brouziyne, whose institute collaborates with the Moroccan government on water-related projects, added “besides the national heritage in terms of infrastructure and actions in the water sector, the governance system articulated around the autonomous units of the hydraulic basins is a major asset in decentralized and regions’ specific water scarcity management.”

The country has heavily invested in dams since the 1960s. Currently, Morocco has 149 big dams with a capacity of 19 billion cubic meters. To tackle the growing water challenge, Morocco is building 20 desalination plants in various regions in the country, with a goal of more than one billion cubic meters annually by 2050. By 2016, Morocco had 16 desalination plants with a production capacity of 132 million cubic meters annually. 

Brouziyne added, “Morocco established a new national water strategy in 2009 to encourage the economy and the valorization of water resources through massive conversion to drip irrigation … and the improvement of urban distribution and water supply networks towards irrigated perimeters.”

According to a 2017 World Bank report on managing urban water scarcity in Morocco, population growth, economic activity, urbanization, and climate anomalies will most likely put the kingdom in a situation of extreme water scarcity in a couple of decades.

"The factors that led to water challenge in Morocco include the unsustainable use of water for agriculture, worsening climate change, and the fact that the water scarcity concerns need to compete with more acute problems in people’s lives,” said Megan Ferrando, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Mandi pointed out, “Morocco has more than 30 years of experience in the field of seawater desalination and brackish water demineralization. This know-how and achievements have enabled the kingdom to recently launch several desalination projects within the framework of a public-private partnership.”

“Desalination plants are an important investment to guarantee enough freshwater in the coming decades," Ferrando commented. "But we also have to remember that nothing is ever perfect. Desalination plants destroy the marine ecosystems where they are placed, and the areas along the coast cannot be used in the same way for tourism or fishing anymore.”

In 2020, Abdelkader Amara, the then-minister of equipment, transportation, logistics, and water, announced that the government would build Africa’s largest desalination plant in Casablanca. The project has entered the second phase of construction this year and is scheduled to be delivered in 2026.

Mandi continued, “Desalination of seawater and brackish water is among the most effective ways to relieve water scarcity in Morocco, mainly in arid coastal areas.”

In January 2022, the Chtouka desalination plant, which is located 50 kilometers south of Agadir, started operation. It aims to irrigate 15.000 hectares and supply Agadir city with drinking water. This project costs MAD 4.48 billion to preserve the Chtouka aquifer threatened by maritime incursions, due to the overuse of groundwater for irrigation in the region. The plant has an initial capacity of producing up to 275,000 cubic meters per day, of which 125,000 will be reserved for irrigation.

“Seawater desalination increases the supply component and reduces pressure on groundwater in intensively irrigated agricultural areas. The constant evolution of desalination technologies and the expansion of the market, leads to a gradual reduction in the investment and operating costs of seawater desalination,” concluded Brouziyne.

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