Morocco, just like most parts of North Africa, is facing another drought year. While the biggest victim is agriculture with its negative impact on economic performance, households are not likely to suffer from water shortages. This is because the nation's 116 major water dams have been well planned to supply enough drinking water for the population at this stage.
At present, Morocco is well prepared to face what appears to be a more permanent state of drought but is it the case longer term? Should the country's leaders worry about what can happen in a decade or more? Analysts fear that the situation can worsen if the proper measures are not taken.
Given the nation's current water and infrastructure policies, combined with demographic trends and reduced precipitations, Morocco could face more acute shortages by 2020. With less rain, reduced water collection means the possible reduction in available volumes in the mid terms. Losses and leakages are also sources of major problems, areas that Morocco will need to address to maximise water collection, retention, distribution and consumption. It is estimated that of the 13 billion cubic metres of collected surface water, 8.8 billion are lost, either through the evaporation process or are not fully captured for consumption and lost to sea. Included in this figure are important volumes lost through leakages along the distribution system. This represents a massive 68% of lost resources.
These figures are not challenged by the country's government authorities, and that's a good step toward recognising the problem. Furthermore, official figures show that even today, the 1,000 cubic metres per individual per year required as minimum standard is not even met. The availability of water in Morocco at present is 745 cubic metre per capita per year, a level obviously below the minimum requirement. Projections for the 2020-2025 horizon call for a mere 500 cubic metres, only half of what is considered minimal normal supply.
But this is not the only problem. Availability and supply of water are not evenly distributed across the entire country and population. The populations of the north have an average of 2,000 cubic metres of water supply per person, compared to 150 cubic metres in the southern provinces. Some 79% of water resources are concentrated in 27% of the territory. What this means is that by 2020, more than 13 million Moroccans will face chronic water shortages.
For Morocco, the long-term outlook does not look so good. This is despite the fact that it was among the first countries in Africa to tackle the water issue and establish a roadmap for a secured water supply. The reality, however, is that the outcome and problems related to water shortages as they are predicted are not necessarily confined to Morocco only or even to its own direct neighbors. This is indeed a global issue that is affecting even the most water-rich geographies. With the ongoing climate change and its resulting global warming, water is expected to be a source of tension, and Africa, in particular could be the first victim of drought.
The continent has suffered the most from reduced rainfall, a problem compounded by the lack collection and storage infrastructure. Considered a semi-arid country, Morocco has not had major problems in its modern history and as recently as the 1960s the population benefited from a per-capita of 2,560 cubic metres per year. Since then demographic pressure did no help, with the population nearly tripling to today's more than 30 million people. The concentration of the population in the cities and the expansion of the number of households accessing water have led to added pressure on the water supply. In the cities, the number of households accessing fresh water through modern water distribution systems grew from 52% in 1970 to 91% today. In rural areas, 70% of the households have running water at home, compared to just 14% in 1994. All of this growth is bound to have consequences, the most logical being a reduction in supply.
Leakages all along the water distribution system are a real problem in Morocco. The systems in many cities have long needed modernisation as water is lost in the upstream, long before it is supposed to reach the consumer. It is estimated that of the 915 million cubic meters of water pumped into the Moroccan water distribution system in 2005, only 70% of that volume (600 million) actually reached the taps. The remaining 30%, or more than 300 million cubic metres, was just lost along the way in form of leaks.
Agriculture and the biggest waste of water
But household consumption and leakages in the distribution system are not the only culprits. They are not even the biggest ones. Agriculture is Morocco's biggest consumer of water. It literally absorbs a massive 88% of the water collected by the country's dam and reservoir system, leaving only 12% for both households and industrial consumption.
If farming is a major user of water it is because it has grown to become an important contributor to the Moroccan economy, employing millions of people and generating substantial export revenues. Such growth could not have happened if irrigation were not used in industrial scale. In 1960 only 150,000 hectares of land were irrigated. Today it is 1.4 million hectares. While the bulk of this land (600,000 hectares) uses small and medium scale irrigation and another 300,000 hectares use seasonal irrigation, the amount of water used is still significant. Most of the irrigated land (80%) uses the old gravity technique just as someone would water his or her garden. This technique requires 36 litres of water to properly cover a single square metre. The more efficient technique known as trickle irrigation or drip irrigation requires only 7 litres to reach the same outcome. The consequences of not using the drip technique mean that Morocco is wasting so much water. In fact, 60% of the water it uses to irrigate its farm lands is purely lost. That's 5.5 billion cubic metres per year.
So while Morocco can do better by revisiting its irrigation techniques and modernising its water distribution system, it still needs to recognize that what it is collecting is by far below what it can technically mobilize. Of the total rain fall of about 140 billion cubic metres of water per year, 80% is considered out of reach since it is naturally evaporated or absorbed by the vegetation and the flora in general.
Scientists estimate that Morocco's available water from rain is 22.2 billion cubic metres annually, of which 17 billion can be captured. Most of that (13 billion) in form of surface water and the remaining 4 billion as underground water. But already of the 13 billion cubic metres of surface water, 25% find their way to sea. However, theoretically, Morocco's 116 dams can store up to 16.8 billion cubic metres, a volume never reached.
In addition to the challenges of collecting and storing water, there is also the issue of shrinking rainfall. Diminishing rainfall is largely due to climate change with the outcome being rain deficits of 20% and even all the way to 35% over the past decades according to climatologists. In 45 years, rainfalls in Morocco dropped by 26%, raising the number of no rain days. The situation is expected to worsen over the next decade.
From a regional perspective, not all provinces are equal. When there is no drought, the best areas for rain are Tangiers and along the Atlas Mountains, which receive 800 millilitres per year over a period of about 70 days of rain. In the other regions, the amount of rain received during non-drought years fluctuates between 600 mm/year in the north and 200 in the South, where it only rains approximately 30 days annually. But with longer and more frequent drought periods, these average figures are increasingly difficult to reach.
Acknowledging the issue, government and experts organised a conference in November 2006, which called for the need to mobilise more water by focusing on the actual infrastructure, while introducing more rational and better techniques for water management. The use of water in agriculture is of particular concern, likely to receive top priority with focus on crops that use a lot of water. Singled out as the main culprits, tomatoes, sugar cane, and citrus fruits are called the virtual exporters of water, since a large volume of these products are exported to Europe. For each hectare of land used to grow the clementine mandarin crop, between 8,000 and 10,000 cubic metres of water per year are needed. A single kilogramme of wheat uses 1,000 litres of water. Interestingly, Morocco considers wheat as a strategic product, at least in terms of human impact even though its yields remain low.
Recycling waste water
Morocco will also have to focus its attention and resources on reusing waste water. The case of Marrakech illustrates how a well-planned and implemented strategy can result in a positive outcome. Several years ago, the region used to be a troubled spot, expected not to be able to supply sufficient water to its citizens to having water-intensive projects such as golf courses currently in construction. The Marrakech "miracle" is the result of the ongoing construction of a waste water treatment plant which will bring additional volume of recycled water into the market.
Moroccan analysts also expect the agricultural sector to benefit from the use of recycled waste water. The country's potential in terms of waste water reuse is around 700 million cubic metres per year, instead of the current volume of just 10% of that. The major issue however is cost. Waste water treatment is as expensive as seawater desalination.
Storing more water will be necessary and will require substantial investments. The goal sought by the Moroccans is to up their storage capacity with new infrastructure investment to handle a total of 25 billion cubic metres.
The pace of dam construction will have to be upped in the next years but the cost could mean Morocco will have to borrow money in the international market. The last dam constructed in Morocco was inaugurated in the Essaouira region in mid-April this year. The Imam Ben Slimane El-Jazouli dam cost Morocco MAD 320 million (US$43 million).
Morocco disposes of three major dam concentration zones, encompassing a total of 19 basins. These zones are those of the north-northwest, central-east, and south. With the potential to capture 10 billion cm, the north-northwest cluster of basins captures only 3.7 billion cm. In the two other clusters, water collection is respectively 3.4 bcm versus a capacity of 4.4 billion and 2.5 billion for a capacity of 3.6 billion. Additional efforts have to be made to maximize water collection, in particular in the north.
Governing structures and water management
The issue of sustainability in water supply is largely dependant on three primary factors. They are the amount of rain the country gets, demographic pressure, and the difficulty in capturing and storing the water for future distribution. But there is also a management and governing aspect to the problem. Progress in solving the water problem has been hampered by plethora of institutions and governing bodies that influence policy and planning.
There are so many players involved, from the Ministry of Territorial Management (Ministère de l'Aménagement du Territoire) the national water administration (Secrétariat de l'Eau), the Ministry of Agriculture, the Office of Agricultural Improvement (ORMVA), the basins authorities (Agences de Bassins) and others where rivalries and competition often lead to the freezing in making the right decisions at the right time. This multiplicity of agencies overseeing the water sector leads to debilitating bureaucratic red tape.
The issue is so important that the World Bank attached an important condition to its recent US$100 million loan. The condition is that Morocco will have to streamline its water management institutions and simplify decision making. The country has not yet achieved this objective, but it is surely running out of time as the clock is ticking.