Algeria struggles with acute water shortage

On June 8th, frustration over prolonged water shortage erupted in Tiaret, a drought-stricken town in central Algeria. Protesters, wearing balaclavas, blocked roads and set tires on fire. The rationing was a response to a severe drought impacting parts of Algeria and Morocco, where reduced rainfall had depleted key reservoirs. Residents had faced dry taps for months, necessitating long queues for water.

Nader, a Tiaret resident, expressed his frustration to media: “They promised us a solution before Eid, but we still struggle to find drinking water. Many had to delay Eid celebrations due to the shortage.” Although the protests quickly spread on social media, mainstream media coverage in Algeria, where press freedoms are limited, was minimal.

With summer approaching, Algeria’s water reserves are critically low, with dams at only a third of their capacity. The country, largely covered by the Sahara, has invested significantly in climate adaptation, including drilling wells and funding desalination projects. Hydraulics Minister Taha Derbal announced in March the construction of seven new desalination plants, aiming to double the use of desalinated seawater from 18% of the drinking water supply.

However, some argue that these efforts are insufficient. Andrew Farrand, director for Middle East and North Africa at Horizon Engage, highlighted the growing scarcity of water in western Algeria, particularly in pastoral regions. Without wells, traditional pastoral activities are unsustainable due to inadequate rainwater.

As the world’s fourth-largest gas exporter, Algeria faces pressure from industrialized nations to reduce fossil fuel usage, despite their larger contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate activists advocate for fair distribution of climate funds to support vulnerable countries like Algeria.

Following the Tiaret riots, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune sent the interior and water resources ministers to address the crisis. After engaging with locals, the government dismissed officials for misallocating water and deployed trucks to supply the town. A long-term solution, involving a pipeline from a nearby dam, is also in progress.

Analysts predict more protests over local service failures. Farrand described a recurring pattern of insufficient government services leading to protests, prompting temporary emergency responses without addressing systemic issues. Tebboune, seeking re-election in September, faces uncertainty regarding the water crisis’s impact on votes due to state-controlled media.

In contrast to the Sahel, where extreme heat has worsened living conditions, subsidies for power, water, and fuel in Algeria have somewhat mitigated the impact. These subsidies are funded by Sonatrach, the state-owned oil and gas company, through profits from foreign deals under a recent hydrocarbons law. Activists argue this benefits corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens, as highlighted by Ben Abdallah: “Algerians bear the brunt of climate change while international oil companies profit from Algeria’s oil resources.”

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