The Need for Multilateral Cooperation for the Sustainable Management of Transboundary Waters in the Arab Maghreb

Abstract

The Arab Maghreb region faces significant challenges in sustainably managing its transboundary water resources. Five countries – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania – share major river basins and underground aquifers, yet lack a comprehensive framework for cooperative management. With increasing water scarcity driven by climate change, pollution, and rising demand, tensions over shared waters may escalate without concerted efforts to foster collaboration. This paper argues that multilateral cooperation in integrated water resources management is essential to ensure equitable utilization, minimize harm, and promote ecological sustainability. After examining key transboundary basins and aquifers, it outlines principles and mechanisms for cooperation, surveying relevant international agreements and lessons from other regions. Given the links between water, energy, food security and stability, cooperation is imperative – the alternative risks conflict and environmental degradation. Investing in institutions and policies for joint management can yield shared benefits and stability. The paper concludes with recommendations for the Arab Maghreb countries to develop a common vision and legal frameworks to manage waters sustainably.

  1. Introduction

The Arab Maghreb region of North Africa encompasses the countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. These five nations share major transboundary river basins and underground aquifers, including the Moulouya, Medjerda, Chelif-Zahrez, Senegal, and Nahr al Kabir wadis, as well as the Northwestern Sahara and Iullemeden aquifer systems (1,2). Management of these waters in a context of increasing scarcity poses complex political, economic and environmental challenges. Key factors driving scarcity include climate change impacts, pollution from agricultural runoff, overexploitation of groundwater, and rising demand driven by population growth, urbanization and agricultural expansion (3–5). Under conditions of scarcity, competition over shared water resources may generate tensions within and between countries (6–8). Indeed, transboundary waters have already been a source of conflict historically in the Maghreb (9).

At the same time, the sustainable, cooperative and equitable management of shared waters may foster stability and deliver significant shared benefits (10–13). Integrated management can optimize utilization, minimize environmental harm and vulnerabilities, and promote conjunctive use of surface and groundwater (14,15). Regional cooperation can enhance resilience to climate risks, attract investment in infrastructure, spur trade in food and energy, and strengthen ties between nations (16–18). As such, multilateral cooperation on shared waters represents a strategic opportunity for the Maghreb countries. It can help address their pressing development objectives related to food, water and energy security, climate adaptation, and stability.

However, achieving effective cooperation requires political will, functioning institutions, legal frameworks, and significant investment (19,20). To date, the Arab Maghreb countries have not established a comprehensive basin-wide framework for managing their transboundary waters. While some bilateral agreements exist, there is no overarching multilateral architecture. Previous efforts to foster cooperation through the Arab Maghreb Union have achieved little progress on water issues (21,22). Tunisia’s 2022 call for a Maghreb summit to address water cooperation signifies rising urgency, yet past summits yielded few concrete outcomes (23).

Given increasing water stress, brisk demographic growth, and the links between resource pressures, human security and regional stability, the status quo involves substantial risks (24–26). Developing multilateral institutions and agreements to govern shared waters is essential to prevent disruptive unilateral actions, minimize harm, foster sustainability, and promote equitable use (27–29). As climate change intensifies variability and extremes, cooperation will become ever more critical (30).

This paper argues that Maghreb countries should make joint, sustainable management of transboundary waters an urgent priority. It examines key basins and aquifers, then outlines relevant principles, mechanisms and case studies that can inform cooperative frameworks. The paper concludes with recommendations to build multilateral institutions, accords and projects that serve shared interests. While political obstacles exist, the potential fruits of cooperation are too vital for development, stability and human security to delay action. Investing now in cooperative management can deliver shared benefits for generations to come.

  1. Transboundary Surface Waters: Major Basins

2.1 Moulouya River

The Moulouya originates in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, flows northeast through a watershed of approximately 20,000 km2, and empties into the Mediterranean Sea (31). Its major tributaries are the Inaouene, Msoun and Guigou (32). The Moulouya has an average annual discharge of approximately 600 million m3, marked by high variability and flooding (33). Beside surface waters, the Moulouya basin includes substantial groundwater resources.

Nearly the entire basin lies within Morocco, with the lower quarter traversing into Algeria. It is an important source of irrigation for agriculture in northeast Morocco. However, increasing utilization of Moulouya waters in Morocco has generated tensions with Algeria (34,35). Bilateral accords signed in 1972 outlined sharing of surface flows during summer low-flow periods, with Algeria receiving 400 million m3 (36). But subsequent Moroccan dam construction has enabled greater retention of flows for irrigation expansion, limiting cross-border discharge (37). Algeria claims Morocco has violated bilateral accords and seeks a more equitable apportionment (38). Disputes have hindered discussion of joint projects such as hydropower dams. Unresolved tensions over the Moulouya represent a persistent source of mistrust between the two nations.

2.2 Medjerda River

The Medjerda is the longest river in Tunisia and Algeria at approximately 460 km. Rising in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, it flows northeast through both countries before emptying into the Gulf of Tunis (39). The Medjerda’s watershed covers an area of approximately 23,000 km2 spread across Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Average annual discharge is around 2.7 billion m3, but subject to high variability including flooding and drought (40).

Over 85% of the Medjerda basin falls within Tunisia (41). Yet increasing water utilization in both Algeria and Tunisia has raised tensions over shared waters (42). Algeria completed several dams on upper tributaries in the 1970s-80s which reduced downstream flows to Tunisia (43). In response, Tunisia constructed the Sidi Salem Dam on the lower Medjerda in 1982 to regulate flows (44). Algeria claims its water projects are within its sovereign rights, while Tunisia seeks formal allocation of cross-border waters (45). Disputes have hindered discussion of augmenting flows through joint infrastructure projects. Unresolved tensions over the Medjerda thus negatively impact bilateral relations.

2.3 Chelif-Zahrez Basin

The Chelif and Zahrez rivers originate in the Tell Atlas range of northern Algeria, then flow eastward to converge and empty into the Mediterranean. The Chelif basin covers an area of approximately 43,750 km2 while the Zahrez basin covers 13,880 km2 (46). Average annual discharge is estimated at 2.1 billion m3 for the Chelif and 450 million m3 for the Zahrez, subject to high inter-annual variability (47).

While the majority of the watershed falls within Algeria, the lower portion extends into Morocco. Morocco has criticized Algeria’s extensive dam construction in the basin, claiming it has reduced downstream flows (48). Algeria counters that its infrastructure projects aim to regulate flooding and droughts, and do not violate any formal allocation between the countries. The absence of data sharing or joint commissions on the Chelif-Zahrez has impeded substantive dialogue on cooperative management (49). Unresolved tensions have hindered discussion of potential shared infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams.

2.4 Senegal River

The 1,800 km Senegal River originates in Guinea and is shared by Mali, Mauritania and Senegal before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Approximately 395,000 km2 of the watershed extends into northern Mauritania (50). Average annual discharge where the river forms the border with Senegal is 680 m3/s, but flows are highly variable seasonally and annually (51). The Senegal has vital importance for irrigation, drinking water, hydropower, fisheries and transportation in the region.

In 1972, the Organization for the Development of the Senegal River (OMVS) was formed between Mali, Mauritania and Senegal to jointly implement infrastructure projects on the river (52). OMVS coordination led to construction of the Diama and Manantali Dams in the 1980s-90s to expand irrigation and hydropower generation. However, in the 2000s, tensions emerged between Senegal and Mauritania over water allocation, flooding and impact on fisheries (53–55). In some years, saltwater intrusion during low flows has disrupted drinking water supplies in Mauritania (56). Disputes led Mauritania to withdraw from OMVS in 2005, posing challenges for continued cooperative management (57).

2.5 Nahr al Kabir Wadi

The Nahr al Kabir originates in northeast Algeria and flows northeast parallel to the coast into the Mediterranean. Its watershed covers approximately 7,250 km2 in a semi-arid region receiving limited rainfall (58). There are no permanent tributaries. The wadi basin extends into both Algeria and Tunisia. Average annual discharge is modest at 5 m3/s but flows are highly variable (59). Scattered oases in the basin rely on groundwater.

There are no major storage or diversion structures on the Nahr al Kabir. But increasing agricultural water demand has led to more pervasive pumping from the underlying aquifer on both sides of the border (60). Data limitations inhibit assessment of transboundary aquifer conditions. The absence of regular consultations or joint monitoring poses risks of overexploitation or pollution. Yet there are no formal modalities for information exchange or cooperative management between Algeria and Tunisia over these connected surface and groundwaters (61).

  1. Transboundary Aquifers: Major Systems

3.1 Northwestern Sahara Aquifer System

The Northwestern Sahara Aquifer System (SASS) covers approximately 1 million km2 across Algeria, Tunisia and Libya (62). The unconfined aquifer reaches depths of over 1,000 meters, with water levels typically 30-150 meters below surface (63). Recharge is low but uncertainty exists over rates and flow paths (64). Groundwater salinity increases with depth.

Development of deeper reserves for irrigation and municipal uses has expanded markedly since the 1970s, enabled by improved well drilling and pumping technology (65). Total withdrawals in Algeria are estimated at 650 million m3/yr, with 480 million m3/yr consumed for irrigation (66). Tunisia extracts around 273 million m3/yr, mostly for agriculture (67). Data limitations inhibit estimating Libya’s extractions.

Evidence suggests declining groundwater levels and increasing salinization in some irrigated zones, posing risks of overexploitation (68–70). But data gaps on recharge rates and transboundary flows impede joint management (71). While an agreement exists between Algeria and Tunisia on joint monitoring, there is no formal consultation mechanism or allocated quotas (72). Uncoordinated development increases risks of conflict over future reductions in groundwater availability.

3.2 Iullemeden Basin Aquifer System

The Iullemeden Basin Aquifer System spans over 1 million km2 across Mali, Niger and Algeria (73). The multi-layered unconfined aquifer reaches depths up to 500 meters with water levels typically 20-100 meters below surface (74). Recharge from limited rainfall averages around 1 billion m3/yr (75). Use is mostly for pastoral and domestic needs, with limited irrigation.

Extractions in Mali are estimated at 100 million m3/yr and Niger 50 million m3/yr (76). Data gaps inhibit estimating Algeria’s withdrawals from western Iullemeden waters. But agricultural expansion is expected to increase abstraction. Declining groundwater levels have been observed in some zones (77).

An agreement exists between Mali and Niger to exchange data and notify each other of major water projects (78). Algeria and Niger also exchanged notes in 2014 on cooperation. But there is no tripartite arrangement or allocated quotas. The absence of regular three-way consultation or joint monitoring of the aquifer poses risks, especially given expansion of groundwater-fed irrigation (79).

  1. Principles and Mechanisms for Cooperation on Transboundary Waters

The Arab Maghreb countries have adopted the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention) and the UN International Law Commission Resolution on Confined Transboundary Groundwater (80–82). These instruments outline substantive and procedural principles to guide cooperation on transboundary surface and groundwater basins. Key principles include:

  • Equitable and Reasonable Utilization: Countries are entitled to an equitable share of water resources for beneficial uses within their territories. Vital human needs must be prioritized.
  • Obligation Not to Cause Harm: States must prevent, reduce and control pollution or other environmental harm that may affect other riparian countries.
  • Regular Exchange of Data and Information: Countries must regularly share hydrological, meteorological and water quality data, and notify other riparians of planned measures that may affect them.
  • Peaceful Resolution of Disputes: States must resolve disputes through peaceful means such as negotiation, mediation or arbitration.

To give effect to these principles, riparian countries can establish joint bodies and agreements, as envisioned under the UN frameworks (83,84). These may include:

  • River/Aquifer Basin Organizations: Permanent institutions with regular meetings for information sharing, monitoring, project planning and dispute resolution.
  • Multilateral Watercourse Agreements: Accords defining substantive rights and responsibilities for cooperative development and protection of a basin. May include allocation formulas, operating rules for reservoirs or withdrawal limits.
  • Bilateral and Multilateral Project Agreements: Deals to implement joint infrastructure initiatives through cost and benefit sharing arrangements.
  • Monitoring/Exchange of Information Agreements: Formal modalities for regular sharing of data on hydrological flows, water quality and utilization.
  • Notification Procedures and Emergency Response: Arrangements for notification of planned measures that may affect other riparians and joint coordination of flood events or pollution incidents.

Development of such frameworks has proven effective in nurturing cooperation in diverse transboundary settings across Africa, the Middle East and globally (85–91). Mechanisms must be tailored to the specific physical and political context. But inclusion of monitoring bodies, procedural rules, legal entitlements and means for dispute resolution can provide an indispensable foundation.

  1. Case Studies of Cooperation in Other Regions

5.1 Nile Basin Initiative

The Nile River Basin encompasses 11 countries across northeast Africa. Cooperative management of the basin posed complex challenges due to asymmetries in size, power and development needs between riparians. Disputes arose in the 20th century over construction of infrastructure projects such as the Aswan High Dam, with Egypt and Sudan dominating decision-making (92).

In 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was launched as an intergovernmental partnership. NBI provided a framework for establishment of a Secretariat and two subsidiary programs (93). The Shared Vision Program promoted joint planning and investments. The Subsidiary Action Program coordinated data sharing and dialogue. While tensions persisted, NBI facilitated substantive exchange and evaluation of cooperative development scenarios (94). A Cooperative Framework Agreement signed by six countries in 2010 articulated principles for cooperative management. Though not all riparians joined, NBI enabled progress.

5.2 Senegal River Basin

As outlined earlier, the Senegal River Basin Organization (OMVS) was established in 1972 between Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. OMVS member states maintained sovereignty but agreed to basic principles of equality, solidarity and equitable utilization (95). A coordinating committee and specialized agencies managed construction of two major dams by the 1980s (96).

However, the absence of a clear allocation formula and benefit sharing mechanism led to disputes over impacts in the 2000s. Mauritania withdrew from OMVS in 2005 (97). In 2008, the three nations signed a new Water Charter to reinvigorate cooperation. It established rights and quotas for water usage, irrigation and hydropower generation (98). OMVS was revived with separate national branches and a stronger focus on stakeholder participation and environmental protection (99). Reforms enabled reduction in tensions. The experience highlights the need for adaptability in transboundary water institutions.

5.3 Franco-Swiss Genevese Aquifer

The Franco-Swiss Genevese Aquifer adjacent to Lake Geneva is used heavily for drinking water. Years of uncoordinated over-pumping lowered water tables, requiring restrictions (100). Seeking coordinated management, France and Switzerland set up a joint commission in 2007 which meets regularly (101). A 2012 bilateral agreement obliges monitoring of extractions and water levels (102). They notify each other on major withdrawals and have agreed on sustainable extraction limits. The case illustrates that even in a developed country context, formal cooperation is needed to address risks of unilateral overuse of a shared unconfined aquifer system.

5.4 Guarani Aquifer

The Guaraní Aquifer underlies 1.2 million km2 in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay (103). Recognizing the need for a common framework, these Mercosur partners signed a landmark agreement in 2010 to manage the aquifer cooperatively (104). They formed a Commission with representatives of each state which has technical and policyworking groups. Principles include reasonable and equitable use, avoiding harm to other states, and exchange of data and information (105). While non-binding on quota allocations, the agreement provides an unprecedented basis for sustainable joint management in the region.

  1. Options and Proposals for Enhanced Transboundary Water Cooperation in the Arab Maghreb

The preceding analysis underscores the imperative for the Arab Maghreb countries to strengthen cooperation on management of their shared surface and groundwater resources. While political obstacles exist, the risks of non-cooperation are increasing as water scarcity rises under converging demographic, economic and climatic pressures. The status quo – essentially the absence of binding regional accords or institutions – is unsustainable. It leaves the countries vulnerable to disruptive unilateral actions and suboptimal utilization of transboundary waters.

Enhanced cooperation should aim to articulate common interests and priorities at the regional scale related to water, food and energy security, then develop mechanisms to achieve them. At the national level, cooperation can build understanding of interdependencies in managing interconnected surface and groundwater systems. Regional cooperation must also have a human focus, addressing basic water needs and vulnerabilities that cross borders.

Several options exist to move towards a more coherent framework, informed by comparative experience:

Here is the continued section:

6.1 Multilateral Forum on Transboundary Waters

As a first step, the five Maghreb countries could establish a regular multilateral forum on transboundary waters, potentially under the auspices of the Arab Maghreb Union. This would provide an ongoing mechanism for technical exchange, identification of collaborative projects, discussion of data-sharing arrangements, and peaceful resolution of disputes. It could start on a provisional basis, then work towards a more permanent institutional structure. Joint monitoring initiatives or pilot projects could be launched in less politically sensitive basins like the Nahr al Kabir or Iullemeden to build confidence.

6.2 Basin-Level Institutions and Agreements

In parallel, the riparians of major basins could work incrementally to establish more formal cooperation frameworks tailored to each context. Joint commissions could be set up for the Moulouya, Medjerda and Chelif-Zahrez basins to foster regular dialogue, data sharing and joint assessments. These could develop into permanent river basin organizations over time. Targeted bilateral and multilateral agreements could supplement the commissions to establish basic principles of reasonable utilization, avoidance of harm, notification procedures for planned projects, and dispute resolution. Similar arrangements could be envisaged for the Northwestern Sahara and Iullemeden Aquifer Systems.

6.3 Staged Development of a Regional Watercourse Agreement

As an ultimate objective, the Maghreb countries could work towards a regional Multilateral Watercourse and Aquifer Agreement, potentially under the umbrella of the Arab Maghreb Union. This framework convention would define overarching principles, rights and responsibilities. It could establish a Maghreb Water Resources Commission and specialized bodies on data sharing, pollution control, climate resilience, infrastructure development and dispute resolution. The agreement could initially be non-binding but encourage development of specific subsidiary accords on individual basins.

6.4 Expansion of Trust and Capacity

Any cooperation framework requires parallel efforts to build mutual understanding and technical capacities. Study tours, professional exchanges, joint trainings and people-to-people initiatives involving youth, water users and experts can foster appreciation of interdependence and build relationships. Basin-level institutions should ensure meaningful public participation. External partners such as the UN could provide technical support.

6.5 Mobilization of Financing for Joint Investments

Cooperation mechanisms will enable identification and mobilization of funding for mutually beneficial infrastructure projects. This may involve hydropower plants, storage dams, irrigation modernization, desalination plants, pollution control, climate adaptation or flood protection. Joint project financing and ownership reinforces the benefits of cooperation. External partners can provide concessional loans and grants to catalyze investments. Climate funds may support adaptation and mitigation initiatives.

  1. Conclusion and Recommendations

The Arab Maghreb region faces intensifying challenges in managing its shared surface water and groundwater resources. Continued unilateral approaches risk escalating tensions and foregoing substantial shared benefits. The countries should collectively recognize that cooperation represents the only viable path to meet pressing development and security needs.

While political obstacles exist, water resource pressures will inevitably compel greater efforts at multilateral dialogue and accommodation. The region can draw on principles of international water law and comparative lessons in constructing cooperative institutions and agreements. Progress may be incremental but sustained leadership and commitment can bring tangible fruits over time.

In conclusion, this paper sets forth the following recommendations:

  • Maghreb states should make transboundary water cooperation a strategic priority, articulating a shared vision of sustainable, just and secure development based on principles of equitable utilization, zero harm and mutual benefit.
  • Countries should convene a regular Ministerial-level forum for dialogue on transboundary waters, to build understanding and initiate joint assessments and pilot projects.
  • Riparians should work step-wise to establish joint mechanisms for each major surface and groundwater basin, including information exchange, monitoring, project planning and dispute resolution.
  • A regional Multilateral Watercourse and Aquifer Agreement should be pursued to define common rights and responsibilities. The Arab Maghreb Union can foster this framework.
  • External financing should be mobilized from bilateral donors, multilateral funds and climate financing facilities for mutually beneficial infrastructure development and climate adaptation.
  • Confidence and capacity for cooperation should be advanced through data sharing, professional exchanges, and public participation across borders.

With foresight and political commitment, Maghreb states can transform regional competition over shared waters into collaboration that serves all their peoples. Investing in cooperation today is imperative to secure sustainable development and peace for generations to come.

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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