Dry states: Where the challenges run deep in North Africa

21st September 2022

North Africa is a hotspot for climate change, and the challenges run deep. Huw Morris reports on a severely water-stressed region

To many, it’s the worst drought in 30 years. Others put the figure at 40. All agree that a potential catastrophe is unfolding.

In July, Morocco’s Ministry of Equipment and Water declared a water emergency. Rainfall is 64% below the average this year, further depleting the country’s reservoirs, which have been pummelled by years of dry weather. They are, on average, less than a third full, in comparison to 48.5% full a year ago. The Al Massira reservoir in the key agricultural region of Doukkala holds just 6.7% of its capacity.

Groundwater reserves in some areas are almost empty. Droughts now occur every two years, instead of every decade, as was the case until the 1990s. Morocco’s National Office for Electricity and Drinking Water concedes that it has problems supplying drinking water to 54 cities and centres.

The situation is potentially catastrophic. Morocco’s water-intensive agriculture sector is the country’s biggest employer, accounting for 17% of output last year, and the latest drought will clobber state revenues and finances. In response, authorities have brought in tougher rules on water use, banning the washing of streets, public places and machinery with drinking water, and prohibiting illicit drawing of water from boreholes, wells and springs.

Morocco’s plight is a harbinger of what is coming to North Africa, an often-overlooked region but now an increasing area of focus for researchers. They argue that the effects of climate change are already materialising in the Maghreb – the collective term for Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, and home to more than 100 million people.

Climate change hotspot

According to the World Bank, higher temperatures and reduced rainfall are increasing droughts and posing a colossal threat in the short-to-medium term. It points to computer modelling from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shows that an estimated additional 80 million to 100 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2025 across the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Recent CASCADES research, which investigates how the risks of climate change to countries beyond Europe might ‘cascade’ into the continent, put the Maghreb under the microscope.

The region is now seen as a climate change hotspot – particularly Morocco. Its climate is expected to become even hotter and drier during the next century.

The study, carried out by the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) – a Maastricht-based think tank that specialises in linking inclusive and sustainable development policies in Europe and Africa – reveals increasingly high levels of water stress. This is intensifying security risks in the region, chiefly natural resource decline, inequality and incoherent policy.

Higher temperatures are escalating not only energy demand for cooling, but also pressure on agricultural production and productivity – generally, across MENA, a 1% temperature rise in winter leads to a 1.12% fall in agricultural production.

The threatened collapse in rural livelihoods is predicted to propel further migration, often to urban areas. North Africa is already Africa’s most urbanised region, according to the OECD. In the Maghreb, 68% of the population live in towns and cities. A growing and increasingly urban population will put considerable pressure on demand for housing, cooling and food security, as well as jobs and government services, according to the ECDPM.

“We are already seeing significant water availability challenges, with communities shut off from freshwater taps for several hours during the day,” says Sophie Desmidt, head of peace security and resilience at ECDPM. “That has an impact on livelihoods, particularly for small scale farmers in a region that is working hard to tackle poverty and push for human development. It also has health implications, especially for elderly people, children and young mothers. Food security will be an immediate challenge.”

The outlook for renewables

Tensions over water – whether for drinking, irrigation, tourism or industrial activities such as mining phosphates or cooling solar plants – have provoked ‘thirst protests’ across Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. In response, Morocco is planning to build three dams around Marrakech, as well as wastewater treatment plants, desalination facilities and a US$3.6bn ‘water route’ to transfer supplies from the north to the south. Tunisia is also looking at dam construction.

However, the outlook for renewable energy is particularly fraught, despite significant investment and the region’s huge potential for solar and wind energy. Domestic consumption of renewable energy across the Maghreb is low compared to energy demand. According to the ECDPM, around 11% and 12% respectively of total energy consumption comes from renewable energy in Tunisia and Morocco respectively. In Algeria, which depends heavily on hydrocarbon exports, that figure is less than 1%.

The latter country faces a particular problem: ECDPM research alludes to a slow rate of reform towards non-hydrocarbon energy production and exports due to “powerful interests” and “special interest groups” that benefit from gas and oil revenues. The energy sector has also seen its fair share of scandals, with the Algerian government and intelligence services embroiled in a power struggle for control of state-owned energy company Sonatrach.

Although the Maghreb’s governments are trying to invest in the transition to green energy, the ECDPM warns of “considerable incoherences and contradictions” in policies that further deplete scarce water resources. Governments are also exporting green energy to Europe instead of responding to growing domestic need.

A further point is the absence of regional co-operation on climate change, or indeed any broader political challenges. ECDPM research describes the spirit of relations in North Africa as “one of competition rather than co-operation” – particularly when it comes to Morocco and Algeria.

“All the governments have tried to develop policies and strategies that respond to climate change and water management, but they have to juggle a lot of other issues at the same time,” says Desmidt. “The countries have very different positions in their energy market share and export and imports, and different positions on renewable energy and desalination.”

A challenging political landscape

In Tunisia, managing a democratic transition is inevitably hampering a “forceful approach” to climate change, she adds. Algeria’s political situation, meanwhile, is perennially volatile: despite the end of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year rule in 2019, reforms have been painfully slow in the face of the ruling political and business elite’s close ties to the gas industry. Morocco has developed expertise in innovative technologies, with public-private partnerships investing heavily in desalination, but heavily centralised decision-making casts doubts on whether the profits from renewable energy plants will trickle down to local authorities and communities.

“What is challenging for all three countries is that they have complex governance situations,” says Desmidt. “There are things they can do in the shorter term, but developing a long-term strategy to these challenges is quite difficult.

“The challenges are extremely complex, particularly in terms of deciding who will use the water that is desalinated. Will it go to rural households and small-scale gatherings, or will it mostly go to tourism and export-orientated agriculture? These are inclusive governance discussions and decisions that happen on a daily basis.”

The governments of the Maghreb could continue following a business-as-usual model, or they could go for transformative climate policies – “but we won’t see a move in that direction any time soon”, predicts Desmidt. “They are managing the best they can, but I don’t see anything super-transformative coming out of that region for the moment.”

Climate change: The threat to sanitation

Ask Ruhil Iyer about the reality of climate change on the ground, and one of many stories stands out.

A research officer at the Institute of Development Studies’s (IDS) Sanitation Learning Hub, Iyer was compiling a report last year on how climate change is devastating toilets, water supplies, waste systems and treatment facilities.

A sanitation and hygiene practitioner working in the Sahel region – the vast area separating the Sahara to the north from the tropical savannahs to the south – told an anecdote that sums up the crisis.

“At community level, most of the infrastructure is built through local materials and many times not adapted to resist flooding and heavy rainfalls, so the facilities are destroyed or they collapse,” the local practitioner said. “This is a big issue for us. As a result, behaviour change is affected.

“We have schools in many rural areas where, when there’s no water or when flooding causing facilities to collapse, the kids go back to open defecation. Infrastructure is also buried under sand during a sandstorm.”

The IDS study reveals a plethora of other dangers. Heavy rainfalls flood septic tanks, while dry spells cause water shortages for flushing toilets or washing hands. Longer-term impacts from rising sea levels and coastal erosion will put huge strain on sanitation for displaced people.

“Climate change impacts do not affect everyone in the same way,” says Iyer. “Vulnerability varies across age, social mobility, social capital, location, gender and even just the distance between you and your toilet.

“We’ve had instances of toilets getting submerged under sandstorms, of floods damaging toilets, and this causes a lot of problems for people with mobility issues and who need to access toilets in places where floods are rampant and frequent.”

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

Image credit | iStock

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