In the early 2000s frequent water shortages fuelled social unrest and curbed production capacity across the economy. To address these chronic challenges, the government launched an extensive programme to diversify the water resource base, and improve storage and distribution in the medium to long term. The successes of the sector’s development have been central to broader attempts to diversify the economy since 2014, particularly with respect to agriculture and industry. In the face of rising demand for water from businesses and the destabilising effects of climate change, investments in water infrastructure are expected to continue in the near term.
Approximately 85% of the 2.4m sq km of territory of Algeria – the largest country in Africa – is classified as arid or semi-arid. Per capita access to renewable water resources for its 29m inhabitants is roughly 470 cu metres, less than half of the World Bank’s threshold for water scarcity. Moreover, annual precipitation is unequally distributed: while part of the north-east region receives 600-1150 mm, rainfall ranges from 250 to 500 mm in the north-west, and falls below 100 mm in the centre and south, according to data from the National Office for Meteorology. The effects of climate change have exacerbated this imbalance in recent years, with lower rainfalls and longer dry periods recorded in several parts of the country.
In 2001 two agencies were founded by executive decree within what was then called the Ministry of Water Resources and the Environment, but has since been renamed the Ministry of Water Resources (Ministère des Ressources en Eau, MRE), to oversee the sector in all 48 wilayas (provinces). Water resource management and the implementation of the country’s national water plan fell under the purview of the public company Algérienne des Eaux (ADE), while several other entities were consolidated into the National Office for Sanitation (Office National d’Assainissement, ONA) for the purpose of managing the sanitation segment.
The 2005 Water Law defines the legal framework for the ADE and the ONA to delegate service provision to public entities and assist in their operations at the municipal level. More recently, the MRE and the Ministry of the Interior launched a triennial plan that would unify the systems’ management by integrating these local collectivities within the ADE and the ONA by 2020.
The 2005 Water Law also defines the terms by which the ADE and ONA may contract management services out to private firms. In the years since the law was passed, they established joint subsidiaries with three international companies: Société des Eaux et de l’Assainissement d’Alger (SEAAL), which operates in Algiers and Tipasa under the French firm Suez; Société de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement d’Oran, a partnership with the Spanish Grupo Agbar, which manages services in Oran; and Société de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement de Constantine, which runs networks in Constantine in concert with the France’s Société des Eaux de Marseille (SEM). However, as of late 2018 the partnerships with Grupo Agbar and SEM had both ended. ADE and ONA has contracted with Suez since 2006 to manage SEAAL, whose ownership is split 70:30 between ADE and ONA, and benefits from technology transfer from the French multinational. “Despite the economic slowdown, SEAAL receives DZ20bn (€145m) annually from its shareholders to invest in expanding and modernising the production, distribution and sanitation infrastructure,” Brice Cabibel, SEAAL’s general manager, told OBG.
Water loss control is an area where the sharing of tools and expertise can improve SEAAL’s performance. Network yield – or the proportion of water that enters the distribution system, arrives at its destination and is paid for – is 60% in Algiers and 45% in Tipasa. “There are two reasons: 54% is due to leaks and 46% is commercial losses, mostly owing to illicit connections,” Cabibel explained Real-time data systems have been installed to identify sites in the network where losses occur, with a goal of improving distribution efficiency and lowering costs. ADE and ONA agreed to a SEAAL management contract extension with Suez in August 2018 that runs to 2021, and the continued collaboration of public authorities, trade unions and international partners is expected to encourage further technology transfer and strengthen management capacity across the sector.
Water resource management became a national priority and a central investment focus in the early 2000s, with sector spending totalling $55bn in 1999-2018, according to the MRE. Investments in storage, adduction, irrigation, desalination and sanitation systems have produced significant achievements, such as increasing connections to the potable water grid from 78% in 1999 to 98% in 2018. Further goals concerning production, distribution and sanitation are outlined in the 2015 National Water Plan (Plan National de l’Eau, PNE), which runs to 2030 and is being carried out in five-year increments. In addition to expanding access to drinking water, the first five-year programme (2015-19), aims to expand purification capacity, improve flood protection and boost water retention in agriculture. Lastly, subsidies reduced the cost of water per cu metre by two-thirds in 2017, from AD60 (€0.44) to AD20 (€0.15), at a cost of $3bn to the public budget.
Investments in dams and transfer systems have created more sustainable and consistent reserves, and improved redistribution to regions with lower precipitation. Since 1999 the construction of 36 new dams has increased storage capacity to 5.4bn cu metres and raised their share to 35% of total delivered drinking water. Five projects currently under way are expected to boost capacity to 9bn cu metres at 85 sites by 2020, and the PNE envisions that total to grow to 139 by 2030.
New complex transfer systems have expanded coverage to isolated and dry regions, and increased the volume available for industrial and agricultural use. Five such conveyance systems are currently under construction in the north-west and the north-east. In addition to expanding their reach, the installation of these new networks has been focused on modernising monitoring processes. “Informatisation is key to improving management,” Arezki Berraki, general manager of the National Agency for Dams and Transfers, told OBG. “A geoportal to manage the whole network in real time, along with seismic studies and databases, have been implemented to enhance day-to-day management and prevent isolated incidents.”
Since 2001, as part of a strategy to reduce dependence on surface and groundwater, Algeria has invested heavily in desalination technologies. Per the ADE, 11 existing mega-stations can purify up to 2.1m cu metres of water per day – or roughly 15% of national distribution – in service of 11.9m customers. The Mactaa complex in the Oran wilaya serves 1.3m customers with 500,000 cu metres daily, making it one of the largest such plants in the Mediterranean basin. An additional 12 small-scale “monoblock” facilities – the largest, in Skikda, has a capacity of 7000 cu metres – produce 57,000 cu metres daily. Interest in increasing total capacity has grown with recognition that such plants reduce logistics costs, as their seaside locations are closer to coastal towns and cities, where roughly 80% of the country’s population lives. Four new stations are also planned in Algiers, Béjaïa, El-Tarf and Skikda.
Investment has also prioritised improving wastewater treatment in the last two decades. In 1999-2018 network development raised the population equivalent (PE) – a measure of processing capacity by volume per customer – from 1.3m PE to 16m PE, and improved the coupling rate from 72% to 91%, achieving a Millennium Development Goals. The ONA currently oversees operations at 188 treatment stations, while another 30 are expected to come on-line in the near term. This infrastructure is supported by the environmental provisions of the 2005 Water Law, which defines how individuals and manufacturers may connect to sanitation networks or, for those in remote areas, operate autonomous systems. A national programme launched in 2010 across 24 wilayas obliged 255 industrial units to build pre-treatment systems for polluting effluent to reduce the contamination of soil and water sources.
The 2014 economic diversification strategy prioritised agricultural growth and increased the water supply available for farming. New perimeter irrigation expanded total irrigated land from 350,000 ha in the early 2000s to 1.3m in 2018, and ongoing programmes are intended to lift that to 2m ha by 2020. Land economised for water usage grew from 90,000 ha in 2000 to 600,000 in 2018, driving down the share of water mobilised for traditional irrigation techniques from 80% to 50% over the same period. M’hamed Metidji, general manager of the agro-industry firm Metidji Group, told OBG, “Beyond the availability of water, the implementation of modern irrigation techniques has a major role to play to further boost the sector.” To that end, the MRE and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries launched a programme to equip traditionally irrigated surfaces with water savers to reduce agricultural water use by 20% over the medium term, with the eventual intention to allocate savings to supply a further 200,000 ha.