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Reconciling resource uses: Assessment of the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus in the North Western Sahara Aquifer System: Part A - "Nexus challenges and solutions"

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Coordination among the water, energy, food and environment sectors is fraught with difficulties, and the complexity increases substantially in transboundary contexts. The nexus approach to managing interlinked resources aims to enhance water, energy and food security by increasing efficiency, reducing trade-offs, building synergies and improving governance while protecting ecosystems. Such an approach helps reconcile different sectoral objectives and supports progress towards the closely interlinked Sustainable Development Goals at the national and regional levels.

This report highlights the main results of a participatory assessment of the water-food-energy-ecosystems nexus in the North Western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS). Shared by Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, the aquifer is the biggest transboundary groundwater reserve of North Africa, extending over one million square kilometres. Its water resources are largely non-renewable, with limited replenishment. In addition, socioeconomic development in the basin over the last decades and technological progress in well-drilling have led to steadily growing water abstraction. Currently the combined abstraction from the aquifer by the three countries exceeds three times the natural rate of recharge. As a consequence, the countries are facing important challenges – depletion and the loss of groundwater pressure; salinization; degradation of soil and reduced agricultural productivity; increased energy demand to pump water; and demineralization.

Political will and action in the area have already laid a concrete basis for enhanced cooperation. Since the 1970s, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia have been developing cooperation in information exchange and consultation that inform the management of the shared aquifer. The NWSAS Consultation Mechanism, established in 2006, has a work programme with a budget, and operates through annual meetings of senior officials, ad hoc working groups and national committees. Recently, the countries initiated discussions to explore opportunities to enhance the Mechanism’s functioning, autonomy and financial sustainability as well as to further strengthen transboundary cooperation. The countries have also programmed into their national policies and strategies for adaptation to climate change a set of actions that can help promote joint action by taking advantage of and building synergies among the sectors of the waterfood-energy-ecosystems nexus. The strengthening of multi-sectoral and multi-level coordinated and synergetic actions through a full-scale nexus approach can help ensure a sustainable future of the North Western Sahara Aquifer System.

The NWSAS Nexus Assessment is an outcome of a participatory process that included national consultations and two transboundary workshops. The assessment mobilized representatives from the three countries and the four sectors, and engaged local and international multi-disciplinary experts. Through a transboundary dialogue, the nexus assessment has helped identify key linkages among energy, water, land, and ecosystem resources, together with potential solutions for making resource management sustainable and efficient.

Improving the management of NWSAS resources is highly important to the socioeconomic development of the three countries and the region as a whole. The aquifer system comprises two deep aquifers, one on top of the other, and is the unique source of fresh water in a highly arid environment with annual rainfall less than 150 millimetres and summer temperatures exceeding 40°C.

Agriculture is the largest water consumer in the three countries, and the water-intensity of irrigation in the NWSAS is very high: water consumption on average is around 11,000 m3 /ha but may reach 16,800 m3 /ha. This level of water consumption in irrigation – exacerbated by inefficiency, inadequate infrastructure and poor agricultural practices – leads to salinization and to further loss of soil fertility.

Together with the naturally high mineral and low organic content in soils, this puts serious constraints on irrigation: out of almost a million hectares of soil mapped to date a little less than a tenth is considered irrigable. In this dry climate with high evaporation, traditional oasis-based agriculture remains the prevalent mode of production. Yet new industrial agriculture has developed over the past three decades, and agricultural expansion puts fragile and vulnerable pastoral ecosystems and important wetland habitats for migratory birds under pressure. The low physical and economic productivity of land and water exposes the local population to unprecedented economic vulnerability, which ultimately leads to emigration and rural exodus in search of other sources of income.

Fossil fuels are among the most abundant natural resources in these countries, and Algeria and Libya are net exporters and rank among the top worldwide producers of natural gas and crude oil. Rich in solar and wind energy, the countries nonetheless mostly rely on fossil fuel for the generation of electricity, while the implementation of ambitious plans for renewable technologies remains challenging – and progress towards decarbonization slow.

The tightly linked challenges experienced by the different sectors reinforce the strong nexus in the North Western Sahara Aquifer area. The key to the interdependence is the sectors’ reliance on common groundwater resources that are becoming scarcer vis-à-vis increasing demands.
Policy responses are linked too, through indirect and often unintended impacts of specific measures such as energy subsidies, renewable energy deployment, or the popularization of high-value crops. These intertwined sectoral challenges call for synergetic actions taken in the different sectors in a coordinated way.

These challenges are all directly or indirectly connected to water and have been clustered in three groups:

  • Those related to the management of water from the perspective of economic development and water security
  • Those related to the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the agricultural sector and, more specifically, the oasis agro-systems
  • Those related to energy security and energy developments, particularly renewable energy and its potential to help transform water management and agriculture

The nexus package includes 15 high-priority, implementable solutions ranging from governance and international cooperation, to economic and policy instruments, infrastructure and innovation. The solutions consist of 65 actions to be taken by actors in the water, energy, food, and environment sectors. While each solution pertains to a certain sector that leads its implementation, others outside the sector often play a key supporting role, and intersectoral cooperation ensures the effectiveness of solutions. At a more strategic level, implementing various solutions simultaneously and in a coordinated manner will also help achieve cross-sectoral goals like coherent planning for sustainable development, enhanced local resilience, and a circular economy, while still contributing to sectoral development, by minimizing intersectoral trade-offs and negative impacts, and maximizing synergies. This nexus approach to implementation would help achieve such common objectives as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and international climate action commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The benefits of a nexus approach to managing the NWSAS are multiple, and applying it has considerable potential to support further development of transboundary cooperation.

This Nexus Assessment of the NWSAS was carried out under the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention), applying an assessment methodology developed in its framework, in close cooperation with the Global Water Partnership Mediterranean and the Sahara and Sahel Observatory as part of the project, “Making water cooperation happen in the Mediterranean (Med Water Matchmaker)”, funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The assessment also built on synergies with the Water, Climate and Development Programme (WACDEP) of the Global Water Partnership.