Water stress to remain major driver of social instability, barrier to economic growth in Maghreb

To:

Al-Monitor Pro Members

From:

Francisco Serrano

Journalist and analyst specialized in North Africa

Date:

Nov. 2, 2022

Bottom Line

Morocco and Algeria are building new dams and water desalination plants, but work is slowed down in Algeria by governance blockages and inadequate planning. Financially strapped Tunisia, burdened by debt and political instability, has seen delays in implementing its sector strategy. All three countries will need to balance the water needs of households and those of agriculture. Water scarcity in North Africa will continue to be a short-term trigger of social unrest and a medium-term threat to business operations and political stability.

Background Facts
  • Over the 2021/2022 winter, parts of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia witnessed the worst drought in decades. More frequent water shortages threaten economic growth and social stability.
  • Maghreb countries are following similar mitigation strategies: building dams to create regional water reservoirs, supply irrigation for agriculture and make potable water available to nearby communities; opening desalination plants to convert seawater for both urban and agricultural use; and tapping into underground aquifers.
  • In all three countries, years of scarce rainfall invariably drive up food imports, especially of wheat for bread production and of barley for animal feed, deepening the states’ exposure to global price fluctuations.
  • Projects that raise long-term water availability — mainly dams and desalination plants — will require years to come online. Governments in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia are hoping that generous rainfall over the coming years will reduce water rationing to a minimum and allow them sufficient time to revamp water infrastructure. Risks will remain significant over the short term.

Tunisia

  • About 80% of available water in Tunisia is used by the agriculture sector. The high consumption levels required by water-intensive export crops such as lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes create resentment in towns and settlements forced to endure water cuts. In June 2022, inhabitants of Ejmil in northwestern Tunisia blocked roads in protest. Water-related protests have become increasingly regular across the country. Households nationwide were also reported to have experienced water cuts throughout the summer.
  • As of late October 2022, Tunisia’s 36 large-scale dams were filled at 30% of a total capacity of 2.3 million cubic meters. Four additional dams are under construction, at a combined cost of TD935.8m ($290.4 million). The new Mellegue dam, in the northern governorate of El Kef, is set to be completed in September 2023 and has a storage capacity of 305 million cubic meters.
  • In the Tunisian island of Djerba, a €70 million ($69.2 million) desalination plant was inaugurated in 2018. The 50,000 cubic meter/day capacity plant was the first of four planned desalination units across the country. The remainder will service the areas of Sousse, Sfax and Zarat.
  • In December 2021, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) allocated Tunisia a €49 million ($48.6 million) loan to renovate water infrastructure in 37 oases in the south of the country and support farming. Irrigated farming accounts for 35% of jobs in the governorates of Tozeur, Gabès, Gafsa and Kebili.
  • Although Tunisia’s Water Strategy 2050 was set to be finalized by the end of 2022, after several delays, political and economic instability will continue to undermine government effectiveness.

Algeria

  • Neighborhoods in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, endured rationed access to tap water multiple days a week over the summer of 2021. Drought and lack of investment in the aged distribution network were the main causes. As a result, protesting citizens temporarily blocked the road linking the airport to the city center. The country’s 22 most populated provinces (out of a total of 58) experienced drinking water shortages that summer.
  • In response, Algerian authorities hastily inaugurated extension projects in several small-scale desalination plants around the capital in 2021. Their capacity remains limited. In early 2022, Algeria accelerated construction work on five new desalination plants in Oran, Tipaza, Boumerdes, Taref and Bejaïa.

Morocco

Alternative Scenarios

Scenario 1: Government efforts to build new water infrastructure fall short as drought years persist.

Rationing of water in cities and rural areas underlines governmental failure and reduces state legitimacy. Social unrest increases across the region. Some food-growing areas are abandoned due to water stress, impacting agricultural output and prompting migration from rural areas into major cities. Agricultural exports, especially in Morocco and Tunisia, diminish, impacting employment and reducing foreign exchange revenues. Annual cereal imports rise, putting more strain on government coffers in Morocco and Tunisia. Thanks to revenues from hydrocarbon exports, Algeria is able to address the economic hardships through generous social transfers, at least over the medium term, but the rationing of water in cities further weakens the governing regime.

The combination of successive years of drought and slow progress on water infrastructure projects would accelerate this worst-case scenario. But there are mitigating effects, such as securing the necessary funding, that might allow North African countries to fast-track the implementation of water projects.

Scenario 2: Water stress is relieved over 2023-2026 through adequate rainfall volumes.

This gives Maghreb governments additional time to complete new dams and desalination plants that improve water supply. Adequate investment and policy implementation increase irrigation of strategic crops, reducing food imports and ensuring rural livelihoods. Economic stabilization in Tunisia, following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, eases access to multilateral financing, raising the capacity to invest in the water sector and climate-change mitigation. In Morocco, work on water infrastructure is supported by easy access to financial markets and multilateral financing. Algeria’s bloated budgetary capacity allows it to continue investing in the water sector, albeit inefficiently due to opaque governance.

It is statically improbable that the coming three- to five-year period brings consistent and abundant rainfall in North Africa. Furthermore, given the budgetary constraints in Morocco and Tunisia, as well as governance difficulties in Tunisia and Algeria, expect delays in all three countries’ drive to revamp water infrastructure.

Conclusion – Most Likely Scenario

As such, we should expect a hybrid outcome. Broadly, the governments of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia will be able to successfully increase water availability and eventually secure citizens’ water needs. However, this long-term outlook will be punctuated by flare-ups of instability as water cuts continue to take place in rural and urban areas. These incidents will risk triggering broader social unrest. Water access becomes a business consideration in many sectors such as agriculture, agro-industry and manufacturing. Insufficient water in certain regions forces farmers to adapt. But mitigation efforts by governments, and the leveraging of technology, allow to improve agricultural yields and focus resources on key segments such as cereal production. Smaller-scale improvements in distribution networks reduce waste and improve household access without hurting water availability for the agricultural sector.

Although Morocco and Tunisia are able to secure multilateral financial assistance to revamp their water sectors and reduce scarcity, higher costs linked to desalination will require governments to partly subsidize the cost of water for vulnerable populations. But all three countries are able to improve water-storage volumes.

Contributor Background

Francisco Serrano is a writer and analyst who focuses mainly on North Africa. He has been published in several outlets, including Foreign Policy, World Politics Review and the Middle East Institute. His second book, "As Ruínas da Década," about the past decade in the Middle East, was published in March 2022.

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