Barah Mikail
Last updated: 3 March, 2013

“North African countries need to understand that their national interests are better promoted through a collective approach”

The Arab world is an open ground for possible water wars. Nevertheless, nothing has proved so far that the North African countries necessarily need to fall into this category. Interstate battles over water presume the existence of common resources to at least two countries. The five countries that constitute North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia) have very limited reserves of ground water in common.

The prospects that are worth mentioning are to be found in the Sahara desert, where Algeria, Tunisia and Libya together pump a mere 2,7 billion m3 per year. As for the rest, water issues in the Maghreb region have to be analysed from a national perspective, bearing in mind that the solutions can only be defined collectively.

Maghreb countries have some perspectives in common. Indeed, while they suffer water scarcity, they are also dependent on rainfall variations and on the impact of pollution on their water quality. Each of them also exerts a strong pressure on available natural ground water resources, due to an excessive pumping. Few alternatives seem to exist since water must be available for the majority of citizens.

As for the Maghreb countries’ long-term vision, it is based on national hydrological plans that aim at giving a solution and creating visibility for the coming years. Nevertheless, the existence and/or the efficiency of these policies have yet to be proved, especially in the cases of Libya and Mauritania.

The same could be said about the building of dams, which have a negative impact on environment, and the construction of desalination plants. These latter have a growing importance in Morocco and Algeria. But while they are necessary to overcome water scarcity, they do pose problems due to the high reserves of energy they require to be efficient. However, regardless of how welcomed they are, desalination plants can hardly become the one and only solution for the Maghreb’s water shortage.

The “Arab spring” has insisted on the importance of social and political perspectives for the Arab world. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that water issues cannot be separated from sociopolitical considerations. The direct access of citizens to a water of good quality is part of the requirements for guaranteeing social stability. In 1989, a conflict at the border between Senegal and Mauritania was partly due to water-related considerations. The way both Dakar and Nouakchott made a tool out of the issue and maintained tensions was a way to divert their respective populations’ attention from structural deficits.

Indeed, all governments of the region know that without water, there is no life, and that peoples’ quest for surviving can easily provoke social unrest. In the current context, possibilities for interstate water wars in the Maghreb region may seem limited. But societal risks do nevertheless exist, and they could easily lead to internal/social conflicts.

This is not to say that some countries in the Maghreb region would be at the eve of a water-related war. Water supply and sanitation have yet to improve, especially in rural areas, but the example of Morocco shows that even in far-located areas, efficiency can be reached as long as a political will and adequate policies are developed. The development of infrastructures can easily be overcome, since it has money as the stronger requirement. Governments or international actors can easily provide financial means and/or technology and savoir-faire.

The emergency for North African countries depends on their ability to go beyond their structural deficits and develop a long term strategy that promotes parsimony and better respect for the environment, further decentralization, which would allow regions to define adapted strategies and management, awareness of the importance of preserving water and developing of infrastructures (for example desalination and dams) without relying on them excessively, as well as promoting means for a better regional cooperation.

Since many of these countries find important sources for income and employment within the tourism and agriculture sector, the pressure on water has little chances of shifting towards a more reasonable attitude. This reality makes it urgent for the North African countries to remain sure they won’t fall into the trap of needing more money than they can afford.

A “Grand Maghreb” approach based on evaluating each other’s needs and harmonising some of the countries’ policies after taking their precise needs and capacities into consideration (tourism, agriculture and pasture, number of inhabitants etc.) would also set the possibility for a political union to prevail. It would even allow Maghreb countries to emerge as a model that would benefit other regions in the world. Nevertheless, this scenario can only be achieved the day countries of the region understand that their national interests can better be promoted when based on a collective approach.

EDITOR’S PICK Marching in Marrakech