Skip to main content

The sea to drink: obtaining fresh water from saltwater as a solution to the water crisis.

More and more countries in the African continent are betting on this seemingly efficient alternative model, but one with high energy consumption and environmental impact. And above all: who owns desalination plants in Africa? What are the environmental consequences of this process? Who will truly benefit from desalinated water? Today, almost three out of four natural disasters are water-related. By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will live in areas affected by water stress. This is already the case in North Africa, where the water deficit exceeds 20 billion cubic meters in Morocco and Egypt. Rabat aims to build around twenty desalination plants by 2030, which would cover 50% of its drinking water needs. Cairo has put $3 billion on the table to reach 3.3 million m³ of desalinated water per day by 2025, compared to the current 830,000 m³. This solution has already been widely tested in the Middle East, which holds 50% of global desalination capacity. In the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar, 90% of drinking water comes from desalination. However, it is a technique that requires the use of large amounts of fossil fuels and weakens marine ecosystems. Morocco's Minister of Equipment and Water, Nizar Baraka, announced on December 4, 2023, in parliament the construction of 16 desalination plants from 2024 to 2030. With a total capacity of 1.49 billion m3/year, these sixteen units are planned along the entire Mediterranean and Atlantic coast. The minister also assured that six plants with a capacity of 135 million m3/year are currently under construction. Currently, according to the minister's data, the country has fourteen operational plants with a capacity of 192 million m3/year. Mohamed Taher Sraïri, a professor at the Agronomic and Veterinary Institute (IAV), recalls that public authorities aim, by 2030, for 15-20% of the country's water needs to be covered by non-conventional water resources, particularly desalination of seawater. According to Taher Sraïri, this is "a technology that still has limitations and uncertainties." And he continues: "When we announce the irrigation of over 100,000 hectares with desalinated water, we should ask ourselves what kind of agriculture can benefit from this resource. The answer is: conventional agriculture." The professor also highlights a cause-and-effect relationship between a proven increase in water usage (especially for irrigation) and the withdrawal and use of seawater. "Agriculture in Morocco – which consumes more than 85% of renewable water annually – historically relied on precipitation, then we moved to water from dams, sold to farmers for 0.5 to 0.6 DH/m3 since the 1970s. Today, there has been an increase in irrigated areas with water from underground aquifers, with a further increase in price and an inability to verify the volumes actually withdrawn, given the lack of monitoring of groundwater withdrawals. It is precisely following this increase in the demand for water resources that the option of desalination is gaining ground," concludes the expert. The only alternative would be to reduce water demand, "which would automatically entail a containment of the ambitions of the agricultural sector." However, the development of desalination systems must not compromise adequate education on the use and management of water resources (for example, in terms of losses, waste, recovery) in favor of an intensive agricultural model, too water-intensive and destined for export, such as that of Morocco.