Water scarcity in North Africa: a looming crisis

Water scarcity in North Africa: a looming crisis
Kieran Baker

Water scarcity in North Africa is a pressing reality, shaping the lives of millions of people. This region, encompassing Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, faces climatic, economic, and political pressures exacerbating the scarcity of this vital resource. The Sahara Desert, which dominates much of the landscape, receives less than 100 mm of rainfall annually. Climate change intensifies this harsh environment, reducing precipitation and increasing evaporation rates. As temperatures rise, limited water supplies dwindle, threatening agriculture, which consumes around 85% of the region's water. This has dire implications for food and economic security, given the importance of farming to the region’s economies.

Depletion of underground aquifers adds urgency to the problem. These aquifers, once abundant sources of freshwater, are being rapidly exhausted. Libya's Great Man-Made River project channels fossil water from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System to coastal cities, supplying vital water but mortgaging future water security due to unsustainable extraction rates.

Increasing salinity of groundwater is another critical issue in parts of the Maghreb. Over-extraction and seawater intrusion have led to rising salinity levels in Tunisia’s Cap Bon peninsula and Algeria’s coastal plains, reducing potable water availability and impacting agriculture.

Rapid urbanization and population growth in cities like Cairo and Casablanca are straining water supplies, while inefficient water management and aging infrastructure result in substantial water losses. In Egypt, around 30% of water is lost due to leaks and outdated irrigation methods.

Water is a resource that crosses national borders, above and below ground. Transboundary rivers, such as the Nile, are lifelines for multiple countries, making them sources of tension. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have disputed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia's plans to fill the dam has alarmed downstream Egypt about reductions in the flow of its lifeblood, the Nile. 

In the Maghreb, competition over shared underground water resources is intensifying. Algeria and Tunisia draw heavily from the Northwestern Sahara Aquifer System. Over-extraction by one country affects the availability and quality of water for the other, leading to growing tensions and the need for cooperative management strategies.

Innovative solutions are needed to help address North Africa’s water crisis. Investment in modern irrigation techniques like drip and sprinkler systems can significantly reduce water wastage in agriculture. Desalination offers another viable solution, especially for coastal countries like Morocco and Algeria. Morocco has already embarked on an ambitious plan to increase its desalination capacity, aiming to produce 1 billion cubic meters of desalinated water annually by 2030. 

Regional cooperation is essential. North African countries must work together to develop comprehensive water management policies. Sharing technological advancements and best practices can help mitigate water scarcity. Failure to act could have severe economic, social and political repercussions for all.


Kieran Baker is an Emmy award winning journalist who has started up various networks including Al Jazeera English, Bloomberg TV Africa and TRT World. 

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