Morocco’s budget for water infrastructure is rising as desalination and dam projects advance amid droughts and increasing international partnerships.

Francisco Serrano. August 27, 2023

Changing climate conditions and the need to secure water resources has led Morocco to add another 18 dams to its current network of 152, which includes the Abdelmoumen dam, some 37 miles from the coastal city of Agadir, shown here, October 23, 2020.
Changing climate conditions and the need to shore up water resource capacity has led Morocco to add another 18 dams to its current network of 152, which includes the Abdelmoumen dam, some 37 miles from the coastal city of Agadir, shown here, October 23, 2020. – FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

Repeated droughts and dwindling water resources have pushed Moroccan authorities into emergency mode. As the country grapples with its worst drought in 40 years, the building of critical water infrastructure has emerged as a key element of government policy. 

Subsequently, the need to speed up projects and improve water security is accelerating cooperation between Morocco’s water sector and foreign operators. 

In late July during the Russia-Africa summit held in Saint Petersburg, the Moroccan firm Water & Energy Solutions signed a memorandum of understanding with the Russian energy company Rosatom to jointly research and develop small-scale seawater desalination plants for the kingdom, potentially using nuclear energy to lower the costs associated with the process. 

In November 2022, the National Office of Electricity and Water (ONEE), the kingdom’s utility, signed a cooperation deal with Israel’s National Water Company to work together on desalination and water reutilization projects. 

Amid declining winter rainfall but with a population of 37.4 million people and an economy that depends on agriculture for most of its rural employment and for roughly 14% of gross domestic product (GDP), the kingdom is having to speedily, but deliberately rethink its priorities.

Morocco currently has a water resource capacity of 600 cubic meters per person a year. This is dangerously close to the threshold of absolute water scarcity, which the United Nations has set at 500 cubic meters of water per person a year. Moreover, Morocco’s current capacity level is well below that of the 1960s, when it stood at 2,600 cubic meters of water yearly. 

Worsening water availability has long loomed over Moroccan domestic policy. In 2019 following a severe drought, this led King Mohamed VI to order the development of an emergency water security plan. 

In 2020 as part of the broader National Water Plan (2020–2050), budgeted at $40 billion, the government launched the national program for the supply of potable water and irrigation, 2020–2027 (PNAEIP, Programme National pour l’Approvisionnement en Eau Potable et l’Irrigation 2020–2027), with a budget of DH 115 billion ($11.7 billion). 

The PNAEIP calls for building new dams and desalination plants, transferring water resources to the areas with most demand, exploiting underground aquifers, reusing treated water and improving water distribution in rural areas. 

After an exceptional agricultural season in 2021, low rainfall over the winter led to the worse drought in 40 years mentioned above. Agricultural GDP fell by 15%, pushing economic growth down to 1.1% for 2022, compared to 7.9% for 2021.

The drought necessitated the imposition of water access restrictions in cities and towns, including in Casablanca, El Jadida, and Safi. Rural areas fared even worse. With village wells running dry, the government had to resort to trucks to distribute water. The historic drought forced Moroccan authorities to shift into overdrive. 

“In 2023 there was a decision to strengthen the program, with more investment, more dams, more desalination plants, reusage of water for the watering of green spaces,” said Mokhtar Bzioui, a water resources specialist with several decades of expertise in Morocco’s private and public sectors. The budget for the national program was raised from its initial target of DH 115bn ($11.7bn) to DH 150bn ($15.3bn) this year.

Morocco is also leveraging its relationships with multilateral financing institutions to help fund climate mitigation projects. In July, the World Bank approved a $350 million financing scheme to support Morocco’s water program. The funding will be used to improve governance in the water sector, promote efficient water use and leverage non-conventional water resources. 

Existing public-private partnerships (PPPs) will be key in the development of new infrastructure. Bzioui remarked, “These projects will be a financial burden for the state, and the country will not have the means to do everything by itself, so it will use the PPP model to work with the private sector and help finance it.”

In the tourist hotspot of Agadir, a new desalination plant with a capacity of 275,000 cubic meters a day came online in 2022, with the possibility of expanding to 400,000 cubic meters a day down the line. Built under a PPP agreement between the Spanish firm Abengoa and ONEE at a cost of $460 million, its desalinated water will be channeled for urban use and for irrigation of the agricultural regions around Agadir, which produce an estimated 40% of Morocco’s tomato exports. 

In Casablanca, Morocco’s economic capital, studies are under way for the construction of a desalination plant with a capacity of 300 cubic meters a year at a building cost of around €800 million ($868.3 million) and a completion date of 2027. Authorities are expected to soon announce the winning consortium to oversee construction and operation of the plant for at least 30 years.

Another desalination plant is under construction in Dakhla, in the Moroccan-controlled part of Western Sahara. The $880 million unit is being built through a PPP between the Moroccan government and a consortium of French company Engie and Morocco’s Nareva. The new facility will be powered with wind-generated energy and provide water for urban distribution as well as for irrigation. 

The above projects will add to Morocco’s network of twelve operational seawater desalination plants with a total output of 179 million cubic meters of water annually. Nine additional desalination plants are expected to be operational by 2030. 

Alongside increasing Morocco’s desalination capacity, the government is also building 18 new dams. The kingdom already has a network of 152 large dams and 141 small ones. Once completed, the new dams will raise the country’s water storage capacity to 27 billion cubic meters from 19 billion cubic meters (in 2020).

The rising use of desalination stands to increase water production costs in the kingdom, but the cost difference between desalinated seawater and water sourced through dams is falling.

“The most obvious and profitable dams have been built on the main waterways,” said Bzioui. “New dams will produce increasingly more expensive water. This, in line with the improvements in desalination technology, means that producing through desalination and using dams will eventually move toward the same cost.”

The new projects planned will help Morocco overcome its water scarcity and adapt to a dryer and more unstable climate. For the time being, drought is expected to continue to impact economic performance and gradually change Morocco’s agricultural landscape. It is a race against time.

“We are projected to have 20% less water in 2050 than we have today,” says Mokhtar Bzioui. “We need to prepare.”