HomeLatest NewsDrought-hit North Africa turns to purified sea & wastewater

Drought-hit North Africa turns to purified sea & wastewater

ZARAT Tunisia: From Tunisia to Morocco, sun-baked North Africa has embarked on a building spree of plants that purify sea and wastewater as climate change intensifies droughts in the water-scarce region.

Across the Maghreb region, which takes in parts of the Sahara and is plagued by scorching summer heat, countries are banking on new desalination plants and facilities that can purify wastewater for farming.

In Tunisia, struggling through its fourth year of drought, engineers recently inspected a desalination plant being built in the southern town of Zarat on the Mediterranean coast.

Across the region, “the only solution is the desalination of seawater for human consumption”, said Mosbeh Helali, outgoing CEO of Sonede, the company constructing the plant.

The World Bank predicts that by 2030, the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will fall below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 500 cubic metres per person per year.

Ironically, most of MENA’s existing desalination plants are powered by the very fossil fuels that belch carbon into the atmosphere, driving the global heating that is now intensifying droughts.

A large Saudi desalination plant, Al Khafji, runs on solar power, and Egypt is also planning facilities set to run on renewables — but most existing plants rely on the climate killers oil, gas or coal.

Scientists and environmentalists also warn of the impact on marine life as the plants dump the extracted salt back into the sea as concentrated sludge.

Helali insisted this hasn’t been a problem in Tunisia, where there had even been “a proliferation of aquatic life” around some discharge points, making those waters “highly prized by fishermen”.

Despite concerns around energy-guzzling desalination, North African countries are embracing it as their fast-growing populations pile ever more pressure on shrinking groundwater tables and dam reservoirs.

Lack of water ‘unbearable’

Tunisia, where some reservoirs have run dry, has imposed water rationing for months, limiting household use and banning car washing and even farm irrigation.

“We have endured water cuts since mid-May,” said Mohamed Ismail, 40, who lives in central Tunis. “Every evening it’s the same story: there is no more water in the house until early morning.

“Now, with the heat, the situation has become unbearable.”

Tunisia built its first desalination plants in the 1970s, to purify brackish groundwater, and constructed its first seawater desalination plant in 2018, on Djerba island to supply the arid south.

Today, Tunisia’s 16 desalination plants provide six per cent of its potable water. The rest comes mostly from 37 dams, but now most reservoirs are only about one-third full.

To narrow the gap, Tunisia is building three new desalination plants, including the one in Zerat. Such plants are meant to meet 30 percent of Tunisia’s water needs by 2030.

Morocco is also banking on the technology, which now provides 25 percent of its agricultural needs.AFP

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