Decentralisation: a sensible solution to water shortages in Africa?

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Decentralisation: a sensible solution to water shortages in Africa © Shutterstock

In a report on water stress in North Africa and the Middle East, the World Bank calls for a new approach to water management. The answer to the water crisis lies in "bold reforms", including the decentralisation of water management to local authorities.

Several countries on the African continent are affected by water shortages. But the phenomenon has worsened in recent years in North Africa, which is known for its arid and desert climate. And expert forecasts reinforce the concern of North Africans for the coming years. In its report Economic Aspects of Water Scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa: Institutional Solutions, published a few days ago, the World Bank estimates that by the end of this decade, the amount of water available will fall below the absolute threshold of scarcity, set at 500 m3 per person per year.

The report states that an additional 25 billion m3 of water will be needed annually to meet the needs of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by 2050. This situation requires rapid responses, including investments in non-conventional water resources such as seawater desalination. At least 65 desalination plants of the size of Ras Al Khair would have to be built. Considered the largest seawater desalination plant in the world, the facility located in Saudi Arabia has a capacity of more than one million m3 per day.

Financing desalination

But this solution requires investments that some countries are still struggling to mobilise, despite the opening up of desalination to public-private partnerships (PPPs) in some countries, such as Egypt. To maximise access to climate finance and global financial markets, the report says that governments in the MENA region will need to build institutions that can convince these markets that countries will be able to generate revenues to service their debt.

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In addition to exploiting unconventional water resources, the report also calls for greater delegation of power to local authorities in water management as part of a national strategy. For “the institutions that currently manage the allocation of water between competing uses (especially for agriculture and in cities) are often highly centralised and technocratic, limiting their ability to make trade-offs for local water use,” the report says.

Empowering water utilities

According to the World Bank, such reform could legitimise difficult decisions, including restrictions, as opposed to directives imposed by “ministries far removed from the field”. “Giving greater autonomy to water utilities to get closer to their customers and inform them of price changes could also increase acceptance of and compliance with tariff structures, thereby reducing the risk of public contention and unrest over water,” says Roberta Gatti, the World Bank’s chief economist for the MENA region, who attended the presentation of the new report in Rabat, Morocco.

The Cherifian Kingdom has already opted for the decentralisation of certain basic public services such as water, electricity and waste. The region of Rabat-Salé-Témara, for example, has chosen to delegate the management of its public drinking water service to Redal, a subsidiary of the French group Veolia. For its part, the Greater Casablanca region has entrusted this service to Lydec, now a subsidiary of Veolia, after having belonged to the French group Suez until January 2022.

Jean Marie Takouleu

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