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Water Challenges in Algeria

Water challenges in Algeria
Photo 1: A man getting water manually from a well in the Sahara desert. (Source :Christian Lebon, Adobe Stock)

Available data provide an overview of the situation since independence (1962) and the trend in the coming decades. Shortages are already being experienced, but the worst is likely still to come, given the forecasted drop in per capita water availability in 2050 to below 220 m3/yr. To better understand the future challenges of the sector, it is imperative to consider some of the factors that directly and indirectly affect the resource.

Inefficient water use: network leakages, agricultural waste, and unaccounted for water (UFW)

The sector’s greatest challenge is responding to growing demand. This demand is mainly being driven by population growth and rural-to-urban migration, coupled with high leakage rates caused by old and faulty networks. Moreover, the target set by the authorities of 2 million hectares of irrigated land by 2019 requires quantities of water exceeding the current dams’ capacities, and an enormous budget is needed to tackle the problem of salinized soil and water. Finally, the creation of 57 new industrial zones in the last 20 years has put additional pressure on already limited supplies.

Internal disputes over water

The ambiguity between equality and equity is evident between the different sectors. For example, water has traditionally been distributed equally between agriculture and industry even though the contribution of each sector to GDP is unequal. Meanwhile, water distribution for domestic and tourism purposes is based on well-being. This heterogeneity is accentuated by inequality and unfair distribution, since the impact of different sectors cannot be compared in terms of financing and quantitative and qualitative availability.

  • North Surfacewater
  • North Groundwater
  • South Surfacewater
  • South Groundwater

Figure 1: Geographical distribution of water supply (BCM).[1]

On both geographical and sectorial aspects, equity is not addressed since the decision always comes from the supervising body, namely the ministry. Geographically, there is great disparity between the north, with its surface reservoirs and desalination facilities, and the south, with its abundant groundwater (Figure 1), as well as within the north itself, where more water is available in the east than in the west, according to the watershed agencies.

Political and economic constraints

The status of water is still very ambiguous in Algeria, as it is in many countries. This ambiguity lies in its consideration as a necessity that should be accessible to everyone and as a marketable commodity whose value can be monetarily quantified.

In recent years, the water sector has received increased recognition, since several projects (dam construction, inter-dam transfers, 13 seawater desalination facilities) have been launched to improve water availability and boost all economic sectors. Water is still subsidized by up to 66% of its true value. However, with the current economic downturn, the government might not be able to justify this financial support for much longer, which could raise prices for industrial and domestic users. In the face of these challenges, the current political, economic and managerial focus is on the quantity of water available. The issue of water quality is far from being tackled.

Coping with growing demand and urbanization

As outlined in previous sections, measures have been taken to cope with the growing (urban) population. The well-being of households is far from being achieved, however, since per capita water availability is still below the water stress limit defined by the World Bank.

Indeed, per capita water availability continues to decline, from 1,500 m3 in 1962 to 430 m3 in 2020, and is projected to maintain this trend to reach an alarming 220 m3 in 2050 (Figure 2).[2]

To cope with the increasing demand, particularly in the north, Algeria has opted to build new dams, install desalination stations and delegate distribution to foreign partners who are experts in the field.

All these measures aim to ensure uninterrupted supply, especially in the biggest cities.

Figure 2: Evolution of per capita water availability.[3]

Public awareness and education campaigns

The major awareness-raising efforts around safe and efficient water use primarily target domestic users. This is despite the fact that agriculture consumes half the available water and most water loss occurs on farms to irrigate crops. Awareness-raising campaigns typically take the form of posters and media spots.[4]

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

Given Algeria’s arid and semi-arid climate, it is important to mention that 85% of the rainfall naturally evaporates, whereas the remaining 15% either replenishes the surface water resources (12.4%) or recharges the groundwater (2.6%).[5]

New thinking is needed to solve future water shortages. To compensate for a water deficit in arid regions, importing food is a rational way to save a scarce resource. However, this option is not without drawbacks. When these imported products are subsidized by the exporting countries, their low price negatively affects local production, which is already struggling. On the other hand, this may encourage a return to traditional cropping methods that are more water-efficient or the design of new production techniques.[6]

Climate change – especially higher temperatures and less rain – is predicted to impact Algeria and the wider region in the coming decades. At the same time, the population is expanding and urbanizing, consuming more water than ever before.[7] In 2016, Algeria ratified the Paris Climate Agreement adopted in 2015 at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 7% by 2030 and by 22% if it receives adequate technological and financial support and investments from its development partners.[8]

[1]Mebarki A, 2010. ‘La région du Maghreb face à la rareté de l’eau. L’exemple du défi algérien: mobilisation et gestion durable des ressources’. 2nd International Conference: Climate, Sustainability and Development in semi-arid regions, August 16-20, 2010, Fortaleza – Ceará, Brazil.
[2]Chaoui MS, Benterki A and van Cauwenbergh N, 2016. ‘Analyse de la politique hydrique en Algérie depuis l’indépendance’. Revue Sciences Humaines 46:A.
[3] Ibid.
[4] World Bank, no date. Agriculture, forestry and fishing, value added (% of GDP).
[5] Chaoui MS, Benterki A and van Cauwenbergh N, 2016. ‘Analyse de la politique hydrique en Algérie depuis l’indépendance’. Revue Sciences Humaines 46:A.
[6]Guesnier B, 2010. ‘Water and sustainable development, failed association without societal governance and decentralized cooperation’. Développement durable et territoires 1:1.
[7] Stratfor Worldview, 2016. Algeria’s Expensive Water Problem.
[8] HuffPost Algerie, 2016. ‘L’Algérie ratifie l’accord de Paris sur le climat’.