Nations in the Maghreb must act to preserve precious water supplies
North African states and communities are no strangers to the need for careful water management and its relevance to effective governance in challenging times.
From traditional underground water channels and ingenious methods of water collection and storage to modern dams and hydropower projects, these are time-spanning infrastructure innovations and techniques that reflect the strategic importance of the careful conservation and use of the resource in one of the most water-stressed regions in the world.
Maghrebi countries receive an average of less than 1,000 cubic meters of renewable fresh water per person per year. The growing global climate emergency is placing ever greater stress on the region’s water infrastructure, as the levels, intensity and variability of seasonal precipitation are radically changing along with the climate.
Their similar climatic systems, hydrologic cycles and geography mean that North African countries tend to suffer from similar climate-induced phenomena, such as severe, prolonged droughts and devastating wildfires.
Experts predict precipitation will continue to decline in the coming years, even as populations grow, necessitating urgent interventions to preempt shortages and reduced hydropower and agriculture capacity. Continued inaction will exacerbate the knock-on effects to economic sectors already experiencing social, economic and political headwinds due to persistent instability and even conflict.
This is not applicable only to North Africa. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, more than 500 million people around the globe face significant, interconnected climate risks.
It is just that in the Maghreb, things will be a lot worse. Average temperatures are expected to be 20 percent higher than the rest of the world in the coming years. The subregion is already experiencing climate-related shocks in the form of record-breaking heat waves, acute water shortages, biodiversity losses as a result of wildfires, and major threats to agricultural production.
In addition, vulnerable sections of the population and those trapped in fragile situations who are already experiencing extreme poverty must now grapple with ever-scarcer water resources, even as populations grow, income levels rise and urbanization intensifies, all of which further compound the woes.
Put simply, unmitigated climate risks are continuously adding new levels of complexity to this subregion in areas such as labor, human mobility, settlement and habitability, as accelerated environmental degradation further endangers food and water security.
Already, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that in the absence of swift action, crop yields around the world could be reduced by as much as 20 percent by 2050, with rain-fed farming systems suffering the greatest impacts. Reduced water resources will also threaten livestock rearing as a result of accelerated land degradation, reduced feed supplies and shrinking pasturelands.
Even at sea, rising temperatures and reduced rainfall will also affect fisheries, and this goes to illustrate the extent to which inaction can easily and quickly result in warming becoming a crisis multiplier.
The growing global climate emergency is placing ever greater stress on the region’s water infrastructure, as the levels, intensity and variability of seasonal precipitation are radically changing along with the climate.
In the Maghreb, some of these effects are already evident and, in some cases, becoming more common. Poorer, rural communities are unable to maintain adequate levels of agricultural production to sustain their livelihoods, since farming is a water-intensive activity that is extremely vulnerable to highly variable precipitation levels.
It does not end there. In countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, where the agricultural sector generates up to a fifth of national gross domestic product and is a major non-oil export, even the slightest disruption will have exponential effects on the economy and society.
After all, 20-33 percent of the labor force in Morocco and Tunisia, for instance, derive a livelihood from the agriculture sector, which means that as rainfall declines, forests burn and severe droughts become more frequent, large swaths of populations in North Africa could join the swelling ranks of the jobless, desperate and impoverished.
It is no secret that the availability of water, uninterrupted access and the well-managed use of it has enormously positive effects on society, such as agricultural transformations that can foster greater food security to sustain livelihoods, improve citizens’ well-being and, ultimately, boost resilience against future shocks, including those that are not related to climate change.
However, when all five Maghreb countries are considered highly or extremely water-stressed, any additional risks, as well as slow or inadequate responses to them, are likely to upend the subregion’s already fragile food-water-energy nexus.
This could ultimately spark mass movements among populations that have little choice but to flee increasingly inhospitable zones, acute shortages of even the most basic necessities, or domestic or regional instability and conflict.
Worse yet, there has been very little progress made so far because, according to the indicators used in the UN’s first-ever assessment of water security in Africa, the entire continent has only managed to improve its water security by 1.1 percent since 2015.
It is long past time for the Maghreb to exploit its centuries-long history of tried-and-tested, sustainable water-management practices to combat intensifying water scarcity. The modern, water-intensive farming of the decadent decades past must give way to, or work alongside, traditional irrigation and water-management techniques — such as Tunisia’s sandy soil irrigation techniques that allow farms to thrive all year round — that have become historical legacies.
The same applies to Algeria’s foggara or Morocco’s khettara subsurface irrigation systems that are designed to cope with the aridity and heat of the Sahara while allowing constant water flows and preventing evaporation.
Even then, it will still not be enough because rapid urbanization has led to more than half of the subregion’s populations living in coastal zones, far from inland water sources such as groundwater and mountainous regions with greater precipitation.
To date, North African countries are still struggling to design and build infrastructure to transport water to densely populated coastal cities in ways that do not drain desert aquifers and deplete groundwater, which is a finite resource, faster than it can be replenished.
In addition, there is little political will or capacity to engage in environmental or “green” urban planning that would allow densely populated cities to more efficiently use energy and water. As temperatures rise and rural populations move into urban areas, this will only exacerbate resource scarcity and introduce new constraints before the subregion can adapt, if it does at all.
Given the criticality of water security, the intensifying competition over access to this precious resource can, without adequate safeguards, quickly devolve into conflict among local communities experiencing heightened fragility, and among nation-states given the destabilizing effects of water scarcity.
On the other hand, cooperative engagement and management of shared water resources can catalyze sustainable cooperation even among rival actors or the most diametrically opposed communities. Fortunately, a lack of transboundary rivers and lakes means that the Maghreb is spared the tensions and potential conflicts between riparian states over shared water resources, which are likely to occur with greater frequency as the effects of climate change worsen in the coming decades.
However, sprawling aquifers, which tend to cross national borders, can become sources of new conflict since, contrary to common perceptions, groundwater sources are not infinite.
Morocco and Algeria are already locked in a quixotic rivalry over the Bounaim-Taffna basin. Both sides are engaged in reckless over-exploitation with little or no prospect of any bilateral cooperation in managing this precious resource, despite the precedent set by the collaborative management of the North Western Sahara Aquifer System. It is unlikely that either Rabat or Algiers will compartmentalize other sources of their rivalry to jointly manage the Bounaim-Taffna catchment, even though that would be mutually beneficial.
Unfortunately, as pressing domestic challenges mount, Maghrebi countries will eschew much-needed cooperation for inaction or piecemeal interventions that will only serve to aggravate climate-related woes, even when there is sufficient capacity, expertise, will and funding to safeguard the most vulnerable in the subregion: Its poor.
- Hafed Al Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell