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close this bookWater Management in Africa and the Middle East: Challenges (IDRC, 1996)
close this folderPart II - Subregional contributions
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View the documentImproving Water Supply Systems in Rural West and Central Africa

Sources of Strain and Alternatives for Relief in the Most Stressed Water Systems of North Africa

Mohammed S. Matoussi

Resource Economist, Faculty of Economic Science and Management,

University of Tunis, Tunis, Tunisia


North Africa, which includes the three countries of the Maghreb - Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia - is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. The demand for water from all sectors has increased tremendously because of rapid economic and population growth. The immediate result has been acute scarcity in some countries. If this growth in demand continues at its current rate, an overall deficit will be unavoidable.

The countries of the Maghreb, faced with the possibility of chronic water shortages in the near future, must increase supply or control demand. The options for increasing supply are very limited. The most accessible water sources have already been exploited; exploiting those that remain would require heavy investments and might cause significant, perhaps irreversible, environmental degradation. Even if the Maghreb succeeded in exploiting all of its potential resources, an overall deficit would appear in the near future.

This paper examines alternatives for reducing the chronic deficits that could be effected within the framework of the current economic situation. It also looks at possible measures for reducing demand after appropriate economic and institutional reforms have been instituted.


North Africa, extending across 2 000 km, is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Sahara desert to the south. The Maghreb is a land of contrasts. Parts of the region are green and lush, but others are very hot and dry. Rainfall is, of course, the major climatic factor. Commercial and subsistence agriculture depend significantly on the vagaries of the weather.

According to hydrologists, countries with less than 1 700 m³ of freshwater per person per year will experience periodic shortages; below about 1 000 m³, the shortages will be chronic. North Africa, with 611 m³ of exploitable water per person in 1992, is therefore below the critical threshold of chronic shortages. Projections give an even more frightening picture: by 2020, renewable freshwater availability per person per year will fall to 378 m³. Worse yet, these averages for the whole of the Maghreb mask enormous disparities among the three countries. Morocco is well supplied with water, but Tunisia is one of the most water-scare countries of the world, with 432 m³/person per year, and projections indicate that this number will fall to 285 m³ by 2020.

Water uses

The Maghreb countries receive an average rainfall of about 257 x 109 m³/year. Only 37.2 x 109 m³ is exploitable with existing technology. In 1991, 17 x 109 m³, which included 10.1 x 109 m³ of surface water and 6.9 x 109 m³ of groundwater, was exploited. The index of exploitation (the ratio of exploited to potential resources) was 32% in 1992.

Irrigation consumes most of the water: 14.65 x 109 m³/year. Morocco uses 10.2 x 109 m³ of its water resources for irrigation (60% of the water in the Maghreb). Households and industry use 2.18109179;/year (13%). This shows that the industrial sector is not very well developed and that the supply to households is inadequate. Table 1 shows the allocation of water to these sectors.


Groundwater sources are generally used for potable water. Morocco gets 62% of its drinking water from such sources, and Tunisia gets 53%. There is a need to shift to surface sources because accessible aquifers are becoming depleted.

The reliability and quality of water vary from urban to rural areas and from one country to the other. Tunisia has the highest quality drinking water. The urban population is served by a public distribution network, and about one third of the rural population has access to safe drinking water. Major efforts are being made to improve the quality of the water supplied to the rest of the rural population. In Morocco, 75% of the urban population and 30% of the rural population are supplied with water from public systems. Algeria, on the other hand, has the greatest difficulty providing water to both its rural and its urban populations.


Irrigation is now used on about 1.6 x 106 ha, of which 716 000 ha is in public areas served by La grande hydraulique, a huge irrigation project. Morocco has the largest area (460 000 ha) under modern irrigation systems. It also has the largest irrigated area, with 1.3 x 106 ha (60%) of the 2.25 x 106 ha in the Maghreb.

Although irrigation has been practiced for centuries in many regions of North Africa (such as Rif, Dir of the Atlas, Haouz of Marrakesh, Cap-Bon, and Sahel), La grande hydraulique is the biggest agricultural development since independence. The project has tremendously increased the region’s agricultural output, but not without some adverse effects:

· Excessive irrigation has led to waterlogging by raising the water table.
· Eutrophication and salinization are becoming common.
· Inappropriate management of watersheds has led to silting of reservoirs built at huge cost.

Water balance in the Maghreb

If current trends of consumption continue and there is no major structural change in the allocation of water or in the technology of exploitation, there will be water shortages throughout the subregion after 2 000. Tunisia will experience the most severe deficit, but even Morocco, with water resources significantly greater than the average for the region, will also experience difficulties.

Morocco can expect to face a chronic water shortage in the future. Table 2 shows that by 2020, with the exception of Rifains du Nord and Sebou, every watershed will be affected. The large Atlantic west-central region, which is undergoing rapid economic development and urbanization, has major water resources, including several coastal streams and rivers, yet it faces a deficit to the tune of 850 x 106 m³/year.

Projections indicate that Algeria will have an overall chronic deficit of about 245 x 106 m³/year by 2010. The Algiers region, already experiencing declining quality of water from phreatic sources, aggravated by industrial, agricultural, and urban effluent, will have serious shortages by 2010.

Of the three countries of the Maghreb, Tunisia will face the most serious water deficits ion 2010. Projections suggest that the index of exploitation for water will exceed the renewable limit and go well beyond it, which means Tunisia will be mining its water system. No matter what scenario is chosen, Tunisia is faced with the most worrisome deficit.

Regions of chronic water shortage in the Maghreb

Although there are disparities in water availability among the three countries of the Maghreb, disparities within each country are even greater. This section briefly reviews some characteristic cases and suggest ways to alleviate the growing problems.


The most water-scarce region of Morocco is Moulaya, which receives irregular rainfall. According to estimates. the annual water requirements there will soon reach 1.2 x 109 m³, which will exceed available supply by 200 x 106 m³, or one fifth of anticipated needs. Since independence this region has witnessed increased exploitation of water sources through intensive mechanization and deep pumping. The combined pressure from expanding agriculture, industry, and tourism, along with the effects of the droughts during 1972-86, has led to a steady lowering of the water table, exceeding 30 cm in some areas. No other part of Morocco has been affected as seriously as Moulaya. However, growing deficits in the region of Souss-Massa are expected to provide an equally serious challenge in the coming years.


The Oran region, with an annual rainfall of less than 300 mm, faces severe water shortages, which limit large-scale irrigation and reduce industrial output. In addition, the water-distribution system is inadequate, and the basic sanitary standards for water are not respected. The aquifers of Mascara and Sidi Be Abbes provide more than 150 x 106 m³ of water annually for irrigation but are being overpumped to the extent that degradation is almost inevitable.


Water shortages in Tunisia are chronic in the coastal region, which has the greater part of the population and major economic activities (large urban centres, factories, and hotels). Surface water is very limited along the coast and represents only 2% of the national potential. Deep aquifers are rather more widely distributed but still represent less than 10% of the national potential. Phreatic water alone is in major supply. Unfortunately, these shallow sheets of groundwater are threatened by pollution and overpumping.

Alternatives for reducing chronic deficits

To address the water-scarcity problem, the countries of the Maghreb must use existing technical means to increase the water supply.

To match water supply to demand, water-resource managers have the following options:

· treating wastewater;
· reducing distribution losses;
· improving drainage systems in agricultural areas;
· using brackish water; and
· developing a master plan for soil and water conservation.

If implemented, these approaches could increase supply dramatically. For example, Tunisia could recover up to 1.6 x 109 m³ of water, equivalent to half of the water resources currently being exploited by the country.

Treating wastewater

Treated wastewater constitutes a resource that is not only constantly available but also increasingly available, with the development of cities, tourism, and industry. Because of growing demand for water, on the one hand, and limited water resources, on the other, the countries of the Maghreb have little alternative but to recycle treated wastewater for use in irrigated agriculture. Eventually, treated wastewater is likely to be used in other sectors, as well.

Reuse of wastewater has a number of advantages:

· It provides a permanent source of water for the agricultural sector while protecting the environment.

· It reduces the use of groundwater, contributes to the recharge of aquifers, and prevents seawater from intruding into aquifers along the coast.

· It reduces the cost of production and use of inputs in agriculture to the extent that the organic content of the treated water covers the nutrient requirements of the majority of crops.

Reuse of treated wastewater in agriculture is thus a technique that adds to the value of the water resource while it protects the environment. All three countries in the Maghreb have developed programs to use wastewater.


In 1982 about 217 x 106 m³ of wastewater was produced in Morocco. This is expected to reach 725 x 106 m³ by 2000 and will certainly exceed 900106179; in 2020. The office for water research and planning (Direction de la recherche et de la planification de l’eau) has an ambitious development program to reuse this currently wasted resource. However, up to now, implementation of the program has been very limited; treated wastewater is used on only 700 ha of land devoted to vegetables and orchards around the cities.


More than 350 x 106 m³ of wastewater was disposed of in Algeria in 1979; and 660 x 106 m³ in 1985. Total wastewater is expected to rise to about 1.5 x 109 m³ in 2010, but projections suggest the possibility of reusing about 600 x 106 m³ in that same year.


Tunisia has fully accepted the treatment and reuse of wastewater as one of the principal ways to reduce the need to desalinate seawater. In 1992, Tunisia already had 28 treatment plants around the country. The volume of wastewater treated is about 88 x 106 m³, of which about 14.6 x 106 m³ is reused in agriculture. The country has also prepared an ambitious program for expanding wastewater use. Some 57 new treatment plants are expected to be built before 2000. The capacity for treatment will then be about 200 x 106 m³/year, almost one third of the total phreatic water potential of the country. Agriculture will use 95% of the treated wastewater to irrigate 20 000 ha of land. Treated wastewater will therefore play a significant role in the near future.

Reducing distribution losses

The physical efficiency of a water-distribution network can be measured by the difference between the water that goes into the pipe and the water that comes out. A new pipeline system should not have losses of more than 10%. Losses in the distribution systems of the three countries of the Maghreb are much higher. In Algeria, for example, losses in the urban system are currently 50%. The immediate result is that the majority of residents have running water only intermittently, which, in effect, means that shortages are common. In Tunisia, losses in urban pipelines amounted to 85 x 106 m³ in 1993, which represents a loss of 28%. The absolute loss is almost exactly equal to the capacity of the two dams at B-Metir and Kasseb.

These pipeline losses are greater in the irrigation-water network. It has been estimated that an improvement in physical efficiency of just 6% in these networks would be equivalent to saving 270 x 106 m³ of the water resources behind the dams in Morocco.

Recovery of the water losses in the urban and irrigation distribution networks in Tunisia would save 700 x 106 m³/year. This represents one quarter of all water currently exploited and exceeds the total of all phreatic sources in the country.

Improving drainage systems in agricultural areas

Poorly managed irrigation fields lead to waterlogging and consequent environmental degradation. The problems of drainage are in some cases exacerbated other factors, such as

· flat terrain with poorly aerated soils;

· intensive irrigation following a long drought, which occurs in the southern parts of all three countries; and

· intensive irrigation in vast, modern fields, such as those around Tadla in Morocco.

Many studies have shown that drainage systems and soil improvement on agricultural land could translate into significantly greater productivity:

· Draining the land would permit easier access to more distant parcels of farmland, so agricultural work could be accomplished under optimal conditions.

· A reduction in net use of water would mean an increase in the productivity per unit of irrigation water consumed.

In Tunisia, where irrigation is used on more than 300 000 ha of land and takes more than 2 x 109 m³ of water per year, drained water could be recovered for a second round of use. Studies show that it would be feasible to recover about 200 x 106 m³ of water. However, research on this subject is still in its initial stages, so any steps toward actual recovery must be taken with caution.

Using brackish water

Brackish water includes groundwater with a salt content that exceeds 4-5 g/L. All three countries have important reserves of brackish groundwater.

Using irrigation water with a higher level of salinity than acceptable is already a common practice. However, this practice entails serious risks over the long term because brackish water affects the aquifers and damages the soil.

In Tunisia, where brackish water is abundant, authorities have decided to exploit it. A brackish-water treatment plant in the southeastern part of the country is expected to begin operations very soon.

The decision to desalinate brackish water will require, over the next few years, a program built around three components:

· an inventory of brackish aquifers, for determining the quantity and quality of the water they contain;

· explicit integration of brackish water in planning the use of future agricultural water resources; and

· implementation of a research program aimed at determining the optimal patterns of use of brackish water in agriculture and industry.

Developing a master plan for soil and water conservation

In the Maghreb, which is characterized by uncertain rainfall and by heavy runoff when it rains, soil and water conservation are crucial. Particularly after prolonged dry periods, flows of water cause a major and characteristic form of erosion, with serious consequences for water resources:

· Hydraulic works, such as dams, suffer rapid silting and thus a loss in their valuable production capacity.

· Fertile layers of earth and sometimes even the vegetation that covers the soil can be lost.

· Recharge of aquifers is insufficient.

If the three countries of the Maghreb wish to make major improvements in their water balances, they must develop a master plan for soil and water conservation, with a range of objectives, each integrated with the others. Among many possible objectives, the following seem to be the most urgent:

· reforestation in the watersheds behind major reservoirs;

· new small dikes and dams to retain water in the hills and mountains;

· a program to recharge near-surface aquifers and groundwater;

· a program to identify and evaluate favourable sites for water harvesting and spreading; and

· an intensive research and testing program to evaluate additional resources (including artificial recharge) and to optimize conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater.

All three countries of the Maghreb have already launched activities to promote soil and water conservation. Morocco has created an integrated management plan for surface and groundwater on the plain of Souss-Massa, which could serve as an example for other countries. Tunisia has established a 10-year program for the construction of 1000 small lakes in the hills and 200 mountain dams, with the objective of recovering 160 x 106 m³ of water per year.

Measures for reducing demand

The three countries of the Maghreb must design economic and institutional measures for the rational use of water. These measures would significantly improve water availability in the region. However, results will remain quite short of the potential if the economic and institutional framework remains unchanged.

There is need to shift toward measures that limit demand, because development of additional conventional supply is becoming more and more difficult. These countries have already exploited 43% of their water resources, those most accessible and least costly. Development of the remaining water resources will be even more complex technologically, and future investment will certainly be less profitable.

On the demand side, several measures can be implemented to create the needed change in water strategies. The measures appropriate to the current conditions in the Maghreb are the following:

· setting realist water prices;
· establishing a new strategy for irrigation;
· increasing public awareness and encouraging research; and
· integrating and decentralizing management.

Setting realistic prices for water

Any action to control demand, if it is to be effective, has to begin with modification of the price system for water, along with other means for allocating the resource. Pricing policies currently in effect (water tariffs) throughout the world, in humid countries as well as in arid, do not take into account the cost of bringing the water to consumers and neglect totally the opportunity cost of the water. Opportunity cost would be zero only if the supply of water were infinite.

Water prices are generally very much below real costs of delivery, and, in the agricultural sector, irrigation water is commonly priced below operation and maintenance costs. The immediate results are waste of the resource and poor service to users. However, policies are changing. The need to protect water resources, the increasing costs of supply and distribution systems, and the demand for adequate supply of water for domestic use and agriculture are some of the reasons for renewed interest in pricing systems for water as a notably effective means to the optimal management of the resource.

Water-pricing policies must be designed and implemented in the near future, and they should not only cover the direct operation and maintenance costs of supply and distribution and of management agencies but also cover, at least partially, the capital costs of the investment. The same policies aimed at covering costs will also reduce demand for water and promote its more rational use. The Maghreb countries have all adopted progressive pricing systems for drinking water, and these tariff systems serve as an illustration of what can be done. However, it is important to note that an optimal price system for water does not at all imply an excessive price increase. The exorbitant prices that are sometimes levied can be counterproductive if they induce big consumers to turn to other sources of supply.

Establishing a new strategy for irrigation

The countries of the Maghreb, especially Morocco, with its Million Hectare Program, have initiated very ambitious programs to expand irrigation. Indeed, modern irrigation has transformed whole regions, and it has enabled the Maghreb to increase its food production tremendously.

The competition for water for different sectors will invariably lead to its reallocation to those activities that are most profitable, at the expense of traditional and subsistence activities. To minimize the adverse consequences of this inevitable restructuring, an appropriate strategy is needed to establish a new role for irrigation that aims at optimal allocation. Some of the elements of this new irrigation strategy could be described as follows:

· Experience in the region has shown that private irrigation is generally both more profitable and more frugal in its use of water than large, public irrigation schemes. The new strategy should take this into account and reorganize the public irrigation schemes, at least by offering them more organizational and financial autonomy so that they may collect tariffs and provide services more effectively.

· Users should participate in the development and maintenance of their irrigation networks through specially created irrigation associations.

Increasing public awareness and encouraging research

One initiative that can contribute significantly to water conservation is the development of programs to disseminate information, to increase public awareness, and to encourage training and research. Among other things, such activities should include

· training senior and operational personnel for work in the field of resources conservation;

· training maintenance staff; and

· educating and training users.

The last of these is particularly important because water users have to be fully aware of the debt that their country will eventually have to face for its water supply.

Integrating and decentralizing management

Two major characteristics of water management in the Maghreb - and in most other parts of the world - are (1) the absence of integrated but decentralized management and (2) public monopolies that produce and distribute water without attention to basic criteria of profitability. These factors have led to inefficient allocation of water.

Integrated and decentralized management systems

The supply and distribution of water in the Maghreb are organized so that each use (irrigation, potable water, etc.) is managed by a central office following very rigid rules and operating independently of other offices. For example, in Morocco, irrigation is controlled by offices for agricultural development (offices de mises en valeurs agricoles); in Tunisia, by regional commissions for agricultural development (commissariats ronaux au dloppement agricole). These agencies are highly centralized and pay little attention to profitability. Generally, the supply of potable and industrial water is managed by public agencies that have social, regional, and even political objectives, whereas pipelines and water transportation are organized by independent public monopolies.

This fragmentation of water management leads to wastage and overemployment in the water sector. A single, conceptually global management system is necessary. This would strengthen linkages among alternative uses so that an efficient allocation of water would be attained.

The concept of a global and integrated system of water resources assumes that there is some preexisting definition of an appropriate spatial framework. The concept of such a system should include consideration of all externalities in its objectives. The watershed for example, has just these appropriate characteristics for all watercourses. Indeed, the natural or ecological interdependencies, sometimes called technical interdependencies, between water resources and agricultural resources are so linked that any planning in one sector will always affect the other.

Decentralized management agencies

Decentralization should be adopted in stages but, in the end, should be as extensive as possible. In the first stage, financial autonomy should be given to user organizations and should involve delivery of services at the full cost of the water. Where possible, decisions, such as those relating to repairs, maintenance tasks, and construction of sewage-pipe systems, should be left to the market.

Decentralization should also involve the creation of user associations, permitting them to progressively take over the management of certain components of the water system, such as irrigation networks.

Water markets

The ideal form of decentralization of water management would involve the creation and operation of water markets to allocate and manage water resources. The concept of water as a good involves a number of characteristics related to both its physical and its economic nature, and this explains why water supply is controlled or regulated by public bodies. However, recent experiments with water markets, mainly in the United States, have given encouraging results and have therefore raised interest in applying this method to water management in the Maghreb.

Nonetheless, if market forces are to determine access to water resources, some serious problems will ensue. Water, particularly groundwater, is common property, as well as being a public good. Therefore, purely private management would certainly lead to speculation and monopoly and result in waste of the resource. Low-income people, particularly those living in rural areas of developing countries, would be severely affected, as would those relying on subsistence and traditional agriculture. If a water market is to be feasible and work well, that is, with optimal allocation to defer recourse to nonconventional sources, it must have well-defined rules and mechanisms.