In its region, the North-West Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS) is the principal groundwater resource, with an estimated reserve of some 40,000 billion m³ of water that is largely non-renewable. As water from the aquifer is in high demand for potable and irrigation, not only is the groundwater depleting, there are risks linked to the quantity and quality of the groundwater, especially due to shortcomings in wastewater management and irrigation drainage waters, as well as oil and gas exploration.
The challenges of ensuring the sustainable use of the region’s water resources, common to Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, countries who share the aquifer, is the focus of an ongoing process for enhancing transboundary cooperation for the management of the NWSAS and strengthening related capacities.
Over two days, more than 50 participants from the three nations representing the energy and agriculture sectors, water authorities and utilities, as well as environmental protection organisations, gathered in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, to assess the current and future management of the aquifer on both national and transboundary levels. Participants identified interlinkages among strategies and plans, laying the basis for strengthening cooperation by outlining a range of beneficial management, policy, and infrastructure related actions that could be taken.
In his opening speech, Mr Tahar Aichaoui, Director at the Department of Hydraulic Studies and Development, representing the Algerian Ministry of Water Resources, recalled the challenges to sustainability resulting from the close linkages, the “nexus” between water, energy, and food. He underlined in particular the question of food security, which is increasingly at risk due to climate change and predicted increases in the occurrence of hydrological extremes, calling for rationalising water use and improving efficiency in irrigation.
Presently, the region is also planning significant renewable energy development with an emphasis on solar power, with different motivations, including the diversification of energy sources and reducing dependency on imports. The “nexus assessment” – which has been initiated – seeks to systematically analyse these trends and opportunities, and to bring authorities and stakeholders responsible for these natural resources together for dialogue.
The workshop participants urgently called for up-to-date monitoring of available water resources, applying demand management measures, including appropriate pricing, reorienting economic development towards higher value production that does not require abundant water supply, and revisiting tarification. The potential of renewable energy to power the pumping and treatment of water was also recognised, together with questions related to environmental considerations and the water needs of energy generation. Participants also acknowledged the need for significant investment in the modernisation and extension of infrastructure in order to respond to the challenges identified.
Revisiting and empowering the Coordination Mechanism on the NWSAS was also among the opportunities identified during the workshop, which could be informed by the forthcoming intersectoral study being prepared by the workshop’s organising partners.
The workshop also provided an occasion for stakeholders to learn more about strengthening cooperation through UNECE’s Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention). The Convention has been gaining interest in the water-scarce Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region thanks to its opening for accession to all United Nations Member States in 2016. The Convention’s provisions emphasize cooperation through agreements and mandated institutions, which also support countries’ implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by facilitating transboundary cooperation for water resources management.