Tunisia fears Algeria’s ambitions will reinforce the country’s water crisis while Libya urges the establishment of a joint exploitation committee.
Although it is the Arctic that is seeing its polar ice caps melt and the disappearance of permafrost that may have as yet unknown consequences, if there is one region that is most affected by climate change, it is the Sahel and North Africa, not least because of the immense number of people who live there.
Natural resources, far from being a reason for the countries that share them to unite, are becoming a reason for countries to fight to monopolise them. Proof of this is the abuse being exercised by Algeria; there are disputes over groundwater in the North African region, the location of which is difficult to delineate, although it is known to belong to Libya, Tunisia and Algeria itself.
For the border states in the region, water resources are one of the most important resources due to the consequences of global warming. The continuous droughts that North African nations are suffering is the main motive that is driving the governments of the countries in the area to act.
The drought crisis is prompting warnings about the threat to the shared groundwater resources of the three countries, in particular to the region’s traditional drinking water supply and irrigation.
The waters of the huge aquifer shared by the three countries, the Ghadames Basin, could be a source of dispute and conflict between the three countries.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the dispute over the region’s groundwater resources is Algeria’s tendency to use groundwater to explore and extract shale gas, which threatens the environment and people’s quality of life, and could also be a source of political instability in Algeria.
This is because many Algerians refuse to trust their government, sacrificing the vital resources of future generations for temporary short-term gains.
A quota-based drinking water distribution scheme was implemented and investments in other activities were avoided. Nevertheless, Algeria built the 75 million cubic metre (m³) Ain El Dalia dam in Wadi Majrada, which was inaugurated in 2017.
In a UN report released on the occasion of the recent climate summit in Egypt, countries in the Middle East and North Africa were ranked as facing drought, water and food crises due to climate change, which is worsening with each passing year.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Africa’s vulnerability to climate change is due to several factors, including low adaptive capacity, high dependence on ecosystems for livelihoods and weak production systems.
In addition to the severe impacts of exponential climate change, as reported in Chapter 13 of the FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2000, only 10% of the territory receives more than 300mm of rainfall per year, further aggravating the situation.
Reduced rainfall has significantly reduced the level of water storage in dams, which has affected agricultural production along the banks of many common areas, especially between Algeria and Tunisia, and even in each country separately.
However, information gathered by Al-Arab from Algerian sources points out that ‘the water resources shared between Algeria and Tunisia, especially those of Souk Ahras and Wadi Majrada, are regulated by bilateral agreements’ and that ‘the dams built in eastern Algeria contribute to this risk, stressing that these fears are unjustified, since in addition to not being in service, they do not depend on a single source of water supply’.
Libya was the first country to recognise the extent of the drought and the country’s need for effective irrigation projects, completing a project called “The Man-Made River” to provide drinking water to the capital and western cities from a common basin (Libya, Tunisia and Algeria).
At the UN Water Summit, the Vice President of the Libyan Presidential Council, Musa al-Koni, called on local governments to “establish a joint commission for the development of water resources in common river basins in the Ghadames Basin”.
Currently, the rate of exploitation is concentrated in 6,500 groundwater extraction wells, half of which belong to Libya, 1,200 to Tunisia and 1,100 to Algeria.
These figures do not correspond to the amount of water in the river basin shared by the three countries, which covers more than 1 million square kilometres, most of it (700,000 square kilometres) in Algeria, some 260,000 square kilometres in Libya and some 60,000 square kilometres in Tunisia.
As is the case near dams, dam-dependent crops and irrigation have declined significantly in recent years, as authorities sacrifice agricultural production rather than conserve drinking water in both Souk Ahras and Tebessa in Algeria, and Wadi Majrada in Tunisia.
According to local reports in Tunisia, droughts in recent years have affected water levels in Wadi Majrada and its dams, while in Algeria a series of dams have been built in the upper Souk Ahras region that is affecting the amount of water that Tunisian watersheds receive.
In Tunisia, there is concern that Algeria will monopolise the common waters by increasing the reservoirs in the Medjerda valley and converting them to Algerian soil, preventing Tunisia from benefiting from the valley’s waters, while its eastern neighbour suffers a crisis.