Drop by drop: Solving the challenges posed by a constrained water supply

The water supply in Morocco is coming under increased strain as consumption rises on the back of demographic growth, urbanisation, an expanding industrial and agricultural sector, and climate change. These factors could lead to the potential depletion of an estimated 80% of the country’s extant water resources over the next 25 years, according to the World Resources Institute, which in 2015 ranked Morocco in 19th place out of the 33 countries threatened by water scarcity by 2040.

In 2014 the country’s water resources stood at 22bn cu metres, equivalent to under 500 cu metres per inhabitant and down from 2500 cu metres in 1960 – well below the 1000-cu-metre minimum threshold recommended by the UN. With demand expected to rise even further, from 14.5bn cu metres in 2010 to reach 25.5bn cu metres by 2030, the issue is becoming more urgent and is expected to feature prominently during the UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in Marrakech in November 2016.

Expanding Irrigation

With agriculture swallowing up a significant share of the country’s water, the government, under the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert, PMV), instituted a 10-year development project entitled the National Irrigation Water Saving Programme (Programme National d’Economie et de Valorisation de l’Eau en Irrigation, PNEEI), with the view of equipping 550,000 ha with modern drip irrigation systems by 2020 and saving up to 1.4bn cu metres of water per year. By the end of 2015 the irrigation system had already been extended to 460,000 ha of land.

The impact this has had on output is clear – irrigated agriculture has come to account for 45% of the sector’s value added and 75% of exported agricultural goods, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (Ministère de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche Maritime, MAPM). This can in large part be attributed to significant efforts and resources mobilised under the PMV to disseminate the practice and promote water efficiency. For instance, under the PNEEI, the government subsidises 100% of the cost of equipment for farmers operating on lands of five ha and under and 80% for those operating on farms exceeding five ha. Resources to support irrigation have been primarily mobilised by the Agricultural Development Fund, which allocates an estimated 40% of its budget to developing the irrigation system. Between 2008 and 2015, it mobilised Dh20bn (€1.8bn) in public funding.

A number of direct foreign investment projects are also helping improve the situation. In July 2015 the World Bank approved a scheme worth $150m to improve access to water in the Doukkala, Gharb, Haouz and Tadla regions. The project’s goal is to ensure uninterrupted access to irrigation water for farmers, enabling the improved management of resources and boosting productivity. (techfundingnews.com)

Pressure Ahead

Irrigation, however, is likely to meet with increased pressure as the mismatch between demand and supply, exacerbated by climate change and sporadic rainfall, increases. While the network of modern irrigation systems has been significantly expanded since the launch of the PMV, irrigated areas still only account for 15% of agricultural land, according to the MAPM and demand for water within these same areas is expected to increase by 7% to 12% in the coming years due to rising temperatures and, as a result, increased evapotranspiration.

However, while irrigated goods now provide the majority of the sector’s revenues and exports, the bulk of agricultural activity – driven in large part by smallhold farmers – is reliant on rain-fed agriculture, which continues to occupy 85% of agricultural land and employ up to 80% of the rural population.

The impact of this can be seen in the drought of November 2015 through to February 2016, one of the worst episodes the country has experienced over the past 30 years, with rainfall in 2015/16 down 42.7% from its annual average. While spring rains have since picked up, cereal production – which is heavily reliant on rainfall – is expected to drop by 70% for the 2015/16 cycle compared to a year earlier. Broadly speaking, cereals and legumes were the hardest hit by the latest episode of drought. Areas supplied by dams were less exposed thanks to accumulated rainfall from previous years, filling, for instance, 80% of reservoirs in 2014/15. Through a project to extend irrigated surfaces using dam water, Morocco aims to expand water access to another 160,000 ha of land. Today, the country has 139 dams with a combined capacity of 17.6bn cu metres.


Morocco is also exploring alternative solutions to secure its water resources in the long term. Desalination is one project in the making with a number of plants under development.

The first, located in the Chtouka Ait Baha region, represents an investment of Dh2.5bn (€229.2m). Famous for its fruit and vegetable production, the region is increasingly struggling to meet its needs for irrigation water. The new plant, which is being developed as a public-private partnership (PPP), will see the government, in collaboration with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, finance up to Dh1.45bn (€132.9m) of the cost. Due to come on-line in 2018, the plant will irrigate 13,600 ha and produce 167,000 cu metres of desalinated seawater, daily.

Another desalination plant is expected for delivery by 2020 in Dakhla, which is also grappling with depleting water resources to meet the needs of its extensive fruit and vegetable plantations, The plant, with the capacity to irrigate 5000 ha, is essentially intended to supply the local farmers of the region, and is expected to generate value added of up to Dh500m (€45.8m) per annum and create 10,000 jobs. Necessitating up to Dh1.3bn (€119.2m) in investment, it will be carried out as a PPP, with a call for expressions of interest to be launched in 2016. The plant will produce 100,000 cu metres per day and operate using the electricity generated by the Ouarzazate solar power station.

Water Treatment

Another alternative being explored by the authorities is water treatment, although development is still in the early stages. The number of facilities relying on this practice currently stands at 18, swallowing up 38m cu metres, or 8% of used water, per year. Almost 70% of this resource, however, is used on golf courses, while agriculture accounts for 13% and industry 16%. A new plan is currently being drafted with the aim of bringing the volume of recycled water to 325m cu metres by 2030.

Adapting To Climate Change 

While water security figures largely in the government’s long-term strategy and its sustainable efforts to boost access to the resource, it is also highly contingent on the country’s plans to adapt to climate change.

Morocco has certainly taken some key steps in its response to climate change. It was one of the first signatories of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in 1996 and was also one of the first to sign the latest Paris Agreement on Climate Change in April 2016. Other achievements to mitigate climate change and shift to more sustainable development include the elimination, in 2012, of fossil fuel subsidies in favour of more green energy (see Energy chapter). This is in line with Morocco’s ambitions – as an energy import-dependent country – to meet 42% of its energy needs through renewables by 2020.


Morocco has also been making strides on the research front, led primarily by the country’s National Institute of Agricultural Research (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, INRA). To improve irrigation practices and promote water efficiency, INRA has carried out extensive research to develop rain-fed agriculture and practices related to the preservation of water and soil.

In semi-arid and arid areas, for instance, it has developed direct seeding technology, a practice that is increasingly gaining traction, according to Rachid Dahan, secretary-general of INRA. “We have even engaged in a PPP to increase the number of no-till seed drills dedicated to this practice, making them available to farmers at reasonable prices,” he told OBG. On the other hand, work is being carried out to develop seeds tailored to different types of soil and climates. “We have developed chick-pea varieties, for example, which can be sown during winter, resist cold weather and diseases, and prove more productive than the usual spring-produced variety,” Dahan told OBG. These efforts have earned the country support from various international development organisations. In March 2016 the Agency for Agricultural Development was granted access to the UN’s $10.2bn Green Climate Fund. Projects approved by the agency are eligible for up to $50m in funding. In addition, in June 2016 Morocco signed an agreement with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation for support in developing climate change projects.