Djibouti’s geographic position and arid climate have made water access intrinsically difficult. The challenges are more clearly visible in rural areas, where communities dependent on small agricultural activity and husbandry have trouble securing sufficient water resources. However, several projects are under way to improve water access across the country.

One key development will be the construction of a desalination plant to access seawater and make it safe for consumption. The Producing Safe Drinking Water with Renewable Energy project, which is budgeted at €67.5m, is receiving financial support from the EU, to help mitigate the challenges faced by the government as part of efforts to improving socio-economic conditions. Securing long-term water access in Djibouti is especially important given ongoing trends: the country is already one of the most arid and hottest in the world. Additionally, pressure to improve access to basic services like water and electricity has increased over the years as a rising number of refugees from across the region have fled to Djibouti.

PLANT DETAILS: The desalination project will be managed by the National Office for Water and Sanitation (Office National de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement de Djibouti, ONEAD), and built by a consortium of France’s Eiffage Génie Civil and Spain’s Tedagua. Once it comes on-line in 2020, the new plant will double the water supply to the capital. To be built in two phases, the unit will have a daily capacity of 22,500 cu feet, which will be extended to 45,000 cu feet. “The desalination plant is a great asset for Djibouti, and we will now be able to bring better supply for agri-business,” Mohamed Fouad Abdo, general manager at ONEAD, told OBG. “It will not replace our water interconnection with Ethiopia, but it is a great addition to our distribution capacity.”

In order to circumvent the country’s expensive and at times unreliable electricity supply, the project includes the building of a 20-MW wind generation unit, set to be constructed during the second phase of the project.

REDUCING VULNERABILITY: The project will be key to addressing urban water needs. Although Djibouti City was estimated to house over 70% of the population in 2015, only half of the people living in the city have consistent access to water. Moreover, Djibouti is considered to be extremely vulnerable to global warming and climate change. The last big drought, which lasted from 2008 to 2011, cost Djibouti €22m annually, according to a joint study by the World Bank and the EU.

The strategic importance of safeguarding water reserves and extending access is also included in Djibouti Vision 2035, the government’s long-term plan to transform the country into a middle-income economy.

Part of the solution is expected to come from a pipeline that will bring drinking water from Hadgalla in Ethiopia directly to Dikhil, Ali-Sabieh and Djibouti City. The $322m project, which was financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, is expected to provide 100,000 cu metres of water daily to Djiboutians.

Not only is improving access to utilities like water and electricity pivotal to enhancing living conditions, it would also increase the country’s overall attractiveness to foreign investors. Once access is made available, pricing needs to be segmented to ease the strain on some of Djibouti’s most vulnerable populations. As noted in the “Djibouti’s Quest for Inclusive Growth” report published by the IMF in 2017, better electricity and water supply are the country’s top priorities as they constrain the poor population and serve as obstacles to incoming investment. To help the poor, the IMF suggested that lower, subsidised tariffs be charged for for basic consumption levels of water and electricity.

Expanding access to water has the dual effect of improving social inclusiveness and easing the development of private sector activities. Although some of the investments in water infrastructure will likely add to the public debt, projects like the China-funded pipeline and the desalination plant are crucial to helping Djibouti achieve its economic development objectives.