Boiling Dry: How the EU Can Help Prevent Instability in the Water-Scarce Maghreb

Written by | Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

The Maghreb, namely Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, is increasingly suffering from water scarcity, among others due to the over-exploitation and mismanagement of water resources. Climate change worsens these pressures, causing more intense and frequent droughts, floods and fires, and making rainfall patterns less reliable throughout the year. Water scarcity can disrupt agricultural production and access to drinking water. Poorer and marginalized groups become even less able to meet their basic needs, making society as a whole more vulnerable to economic, political and climate shocks. Being less resilient to shocks does not sentence a country to eruptions of violent conflict but makes it more difficult to anticipate and respond to them. Water scarcity, when combined with other socio-economic and political grievances, can drive instability.

This is now a risk in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where water scarcity is adding to food and energy crises. In Libya, the war has pushed concerns about water security down the agenda. Most Maghreb countries are undergoing rapid urbanization and have large agricultural sectors that are vulnerable to climate change. However, people do not prioritize water scarcity issues, and governments have limited capacity and willingness to invest in making water supply more resilient. To that end, the EU has significant political and economic stakes in the Maghreb. Thus it is in the European Union’s interest to help the Maghreb to improve water security – both to be consistent with its own commitments to social and climate justice, and to prevent conflict. The EU has been increasing its investments in water management in the Maghreb as part of its wider climate and sustainable development priorities in the region, but it could do more:

Firstly, the EU should create a dedicated water and climate strategy for the Maghreb. This strategy would help identify how EU policies should complement each other. It would ensure that some EU activities, such as the proposed expanded trade agreements with Morocco and Tunisia, do not perpetuate unsustainable practices or further degrade the environment. But these investments require the coherent use of different policies. Together with its member-states, the EU should also create a dedicated water and climate strategy for the Maghreb, consulting regional partners. The EU and its member states should also continue the important investment they are already making in helping Maghreb partners develop solutions to water insecurity, like improving irrigation systems, developing drought resistant crops, repairing deficient water infrastructure and investing in alternative water sources like desalination technology. But water security is not only a humanitarian or development priority: the EU should also view it as a means of conflict prevention. By investing now in human well-being, for which water security is a prerequisite, the EU will be able to help countries in the Maghreb prevent or at least reduce the impact of socio-economic, political and potentially humanitarian challenges later.

Secondly, the EU should address water scarcity together with social justice issues. The most vulnerable and marginalized groups in society experience higher levels of water scarcity and are least able to cope. They are also especially susceptible to climate shocks. The EU should support civil society organizations in putting environmental, climate and social justice issues on the political agenda. People who are already marginalized and poorer are disproportionally affected by water insecurity. Increased water insecurity will further widen these inequalities in the coming years. If Maghreb governments are to address water insecurity sustainably, they cannot treat it as separate from social justice issues.
Maghreb governments therefore need to take their citizens’ long-standing calls for greater government accountability seriously. Civil society is an important but undervalued player in putting environmental, natural resource and climate justice issues on the political agenda. Civil society organizations can also advise the authorities on the best ways to organize water service provision in a way that meets the needs of local populations. The EU can support civil society organizations financially, since many of them face institutional, financial and socio-political hurdles to their operations.

Thirdly, the EU is rightly providing climate finance in the Maghreb, but it should put more emphasis on climate change adaptation (as opposed to mitigation) to support people in the region in becoming more resilient to climate shocks. Climate change is already threatening natural resources and societies in the region, so mitigation efforts alone will not suffice. The EU should shift to a more equal balance between its investments in climate change mitigation and adaptation. The EU should also think beyond narrow aims of carbon emissions reductions, and take a broader perspective by focusing on the protection of ecosystems and the regeneration of the earth’s natural resources, because a rich and diverse environment is more resilient. Adopting such an approach in policy planning would be a step towards ensuring that human development takes place within the local environment’s boundaries. Local municipalities, civil society organizations and the private sector can all help with policy planning and implementation, especially at the local level. Financial and technical support to them should stay an integral part to the EU’s adaptation efforts, as they often lack the resources and connections necessary to carry out their work.

European policy-makers tend to react seriously to instability only once violent conflict has already started. In the case of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, they have an opportunity to act preventively. Failure to invest in sustainable and equitable access to water could lead to more instability not far down the road. Achieving water security, in particular in the politically fragile Maghreb, is more difficult because of a lack of economic, institutional and political resilience. At the same time, water insecurity can further weaken the capacity of societies to respond to environmental and climate shocks. European policy-makers should view investing in water security as a conflict prevention strategy. Once a political and humanitarian crisis takes root, as in Libya, achieving sustainable development goals such as safe water gets even further out of reach. If the EU wants to avoid adding another crisis to its long list of priorities, it needs to take the challenge of the Maghreb’s water security seriously.

‘Boiling Dry: How the EU Can Help Prevent Instability in the Water-Scarce Maghreb’ — Policy Brief by Megan Ferrando — Centre for European Reform / CER.
(The Policy Brief can be downloaded here:

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