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Morocco struggles to solve its water crisis

morocco water Alamy/Toni Massot
Morocco is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world and is suffering from acute water scarcity
  • Casablanca desalination plant largest in Africa
  • Focus on improving water usage in agriculture
  • Schemes attracting private investment

A seawater desalination plant that opened last month at Sidi Rahal near Casablanca is a major part of Morocco’s plans to tackle the country’s frightening decrease in water supplies.

The plant will be built in two phases and is designed to produce 300 million cubic metres of water a year to supply 7.5 million people, the developers say. 

It is the largest of its kind in Africa, and is being built as a public private partnership by Acciona of Spain in a consortium with Afriquia Gaz and Green of Africa. These are both part of the Akwa Group, whose CEO is Aziz Akhannouch, Morocco’s prime minister. 

The plant will be built in two phases. Morocco’s minister of equipment and water Nizar Baraka says the intention is that desalination plants will be built at sites up and down the long Moroccan coast to supply 1.4 billion cubic metres of water.

Balancing thirsty agricultural exports with a dwindling water supply is a difficult proposition in a poor country where climate change is tangible. The Atlas Mountains were almost bare of snow this year. Rivers are dry and the palmeraie are full of dead and dying palm stumps where once there were trees. 

Morocco’s investment in solar and wind power is paying off, and it ranks highly on the Climate Change Performance Index as the top performer in Africa and coming ahead of countries such as the US and France.

But it is water that is now a pressing priority.

morocco waterAlamy
A model of the desalination and irrigation station in Casablanca

Providing potable water for a growing population is part of the proposition. Agriculture uses the bulk of the kingdom’s water, and availability has been hit heavily by the depletion of aquifers and a drought that has now been going on for six years

Morocco is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, and is suffering from acute water scarcity.

Agriculture formed 10 percent of the country’s GDP in 2022, the World Bank says – although the latest figures from the US International Trade Administration put it higher in 2024, at 15 percent. It provides employment for 45 percent of Morocco’s workforce.

Morocco’s agricultural exports are a success story, helped by tariff-free access to the EU and US.

EastFruit, an information and analytical platform for the fruit and vegetable business, reported that in the first quarter of 2024 Morocco shipped out 266,000 tons of greenhouse tomatoes.

This is a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2023, and exceeds the five-year average by 9 percent. More lucrative crops such as asparagus are also doing well. 

Fatima Ezzahra Mengoub, an agricultural economist at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan policy-oriented think tank, is bullish about the government initiatives. “They encouraged the development of high-value-added crops for export and created more than 1.5 million jobs in agriculture,” she says.

Morocco waterPixabay/Sosinda
The Atlas Mountains were almost bare of snow this year

However, Mengoub says that climate change challenges the long-term sustainability of water supplies, “which may lead to increased precipitation variability, more frequent droughts and extreme weather events.”

To maintain growing exports the Moroccan government is focusing on improving water usage in agriculture.

A study by the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership, a global think tank focused on the water sector, has been evaluating water consumption and water productivity.

Expanding the use of drip irrigation is one of the main aims of Morocco’s  National Programme of Water Savings in Irrigation, which is intended to modernise irrigation on 550,000 hectares of agricultural land. 

Drip irrigation only returns 10 percent of the water back into the local water sources. So you are using up the water sources more quickly

Chris Perry, researcher

Schemes are attracting private investment. Last year, Metito Utilities and Tahliya Group, a UAE-based infrastructure company, signed an agreement to develop an irrigation project using desalinated water powered by renewable energy.

Drip irrigation is effective in that it delivers up to 90 percent water from the local sources and aquifers to the plant for it to use, against the 50 to 60 percent delivery from conventional irrigation. 

This is good news for farmers. But there is a major caveat, says Chris Perry, co-author of The Paradox of Irrigation Efficiency, a paper written in 2018 which came to the conclusion that “higher efficiency rarely reduces water consumption”. 

“If you are going to introduce drip irrigation, the thing you have to do as a prerequisite is control how much the farmer gets in the first place,” Perry says.

“Drip irrigation only returns 10 percent of the water back into the local water sources, as opposed to the 40 to 50 percent returned by the other systems. So, you are using up the water sources more quickly.”

Paradoxically, therefore, Perry says that for water preservation – as opposed to agricultural growth – farmers should be allocated less water, to achieve efficiency in irrigating crops. 

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