Posted by: UNECE

The North-West Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS) is the principal groundwater resource in its region, with an estimated reserve of some 40,000 billion cubic metres of water, which is to a large degree non-renewable. Water from the aquifer is in high demand for potable and irrigation use in particular. In addition to gradual groundwater table decrease with depletion, there are risks linked to groundwater quantity and quality owing 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 the aquifer sharing countries of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, were the focus of a workshop this week organized by UNECE, Global Water Partnership Mediterranean and the Sahara and Sahel Observatory, with the effective participation of the Coordination Mechanism of the NWSAS. The workshop is part of an ongoing process for enhancing transboundary cooperation for the management of the NWSAS and strengthening related capacities.

More than 50 participants from the three countries representing the energy and agriculture sectors, water authorities and utilities, as well as environmental protection organizations, gathered in Algiers for the two-day event. The workshop provided a timely opportunity to assess the current and future management of the aquifer at national and transboundary levels, including sectoral policies in the three countries. Participants identified interlinkages among strategies and plans, laying the basis for strengthened cooperation by outlining a range of beneficial management, policy and infrastructure related actions that could be taken.

In his opening, 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 rationalizing water use and improving efficiency in irrigation. Currently, the region is also planning significant renewable energy development (solar power in particular), 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 around the table for dialogue.

The workshop participants urgently called for up-to-date monitoring of available water resources, applying demand management measures (including through 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 recognized, together with questions related to environmental considerations and the water needs of energy generation. Participants further anticipated the need for significant investment in the modernization 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 organizing 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 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.

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