Algiers tackles water shortcomings

08 November 2010

After years of failing to manage its water resources effectively, Algeria’s government is getting to grips with its struggle to match water demand with supply

Water in numbers

93 per cent: Percentage of the Algerian population connected to the water network

19: Number of new dams coming onstream in the next four years

Source: MEED

If capital investment in infrastructure could guarantee performance, Algeria’s water problems would have been solved decades ago. Project after project has been built, responding to the need for improved supply and distribution in a country that is mostly arid and has a fast-rising population.

The challenge stems from the fact that supply in the country fluctuates from year to year and region to region

Since 1980, dozens of dams have been built and yet water supply has often been unreliable. The sector has not been immune to the wider problems that have affected other areas of the Algerian public sector, namely a lack of transparency and clarity in government planning; burdensome bureaucratic procedures; and a tendency to spend heavily on infrastructure, while neglecting questions of long-term maintenance and financial sustainability. However, the past few years have seen a sustained effort to tackle these weaknesses.

Water management in Algeria

Since the early 2000s, The Ministry for Water Resources has been implementing an integrated water management programme, aimed at restructuring the sector and reducing demand for water from industry, agriculture and private households. It has been supported in this by Germany’s state-owned Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ).

Under a three-phase programme, Algeria’s water sector has been decentralised, with a new focus placed on regional water management strategies. A regulatory system has also been drawn up for the sector. The final phase currently under way is developing a model for water management in oasis areas to promote the sustainable use of groundwater resources.

Efficient management of resources is the key to solving Algeria’s water problems. The north has a relatively arid climate and much of the terrain is mountainous, which means rain drains away quickly. German experts say the actual quantity of conventional water resources is sufficient, but the challenge stems from the fact that supply in the country fluctuates from year to year and region to region. The pressure is exacerbated by the growth of the total population and by the continuing flow of migrants from rural areas into towns and cities, constantly adding to demand.

The experts point out that while there has been a heavy focus on improving supply – through, for example, investment in the exploitation of aquifers and in desalination plants – the demand side of the equation has received much less attention. The potential for influencing consumption, the processing and reuse of wastewater, and the conservation of groundwater and the environment have so far been given lower priority.

There is also a shortage of skilled professionals at various levels of the water sector and this has contributed to its weak performance.

The need for reform and better management was acknowledged as far back as the early 1990s. “It was quickly recognised that in spite of the costly investments that had been made by the state over the past 30 years, needs were still not being adequately met and, moreover, the protection of the quantity and quality of the resources was not being adequately assured,” explained Khatim Kherraz, director general of hydrographic basin agency Constantinois-Seybousse-Mellegue, in a briefing note released by environmentalists earlier this year.

It was also becoming difficult to resolve conflicts over water use at the local level, within the boundaries of individual governorates.

In 1993, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Regional Development – which had responsibility for water at the time – began to draft a new water policy, based on several key principles: water is a rare and vulnerable resource; it should be managed on the basis of natural geographical units (hydrographic basins); consensus agreement on how to manage water is required; and, finally, water is an economic resource, which has a real economic cost.

New approach to water management in Algeria

The final point represented a major change in thinking for Algeria, given its history of socialist economic management. The authorities decided that consumers should pay a price for water and sanitation, even if that price was subsidised to protect living standards.

This new approach paved the way for an amendment to the water law in 1996, permitting private companies to become involved in the provision of water and sanitation. The country was subdivided into five hydrographic regions, each overseen by its own agency. The government also launched three policy initiatives: to draw up a national register of water resources; to promote awareness of the economic cost of water and the need to combat pollution; and to draft regional water plans. But this impressive rethink failed to produce a commensurate improvement in the way water supply is managed.

In 2004, the World Bank completed a review of a long-term project it had supported that was supposed to improve management of Algeria’s water system. Its verdict was damning: “Outcome is highly unsatisfactory; sustainability is highly unlikely; institutional development impact is negligible.” The assessment described the performance of both the World Bank itself and the Algerian government as “unsatisfactory”. In particular, it said the government was reluctant to implement the water sector reforms agreed with the bank, whose staff should then have reacted more strongly.

Once again, the bank said Algeria’s planners and politicians were focusing on the building of dams or water distribution infrastructure, rather than the management of resources or the reinforcement of the institutions that run the system.

Officials did not know what the real level of water demand was. Institutions did not function in a coordinated manner and their responsibilities were not clear. Despite all the money invested, public water authorities lacked the means to ensure that water systems were run and maintained on a regular basis.

Poor quality water infrastructure in Algeria

“Because of this, infrastructure is decaying, as is the quality of the service, and users are more reluctant to pay their bills. Thus operators lack the resources they need to make the service run properly. Although there is widespread access to water and sewerage services, the quality of these leaves much to be desired,” the bank said.

By late 2006, it was estimated that 40 per cent of all water supply was being wasted through commercial mismanagement or actual physical loss.

However, by this stage Algeria had a specialised water ministry, which launched renewed efforts to tackle the shortcomings of the existing system. It sought World Bank help in launching public-private partnerships to run the water and sanitation systems in the cities of Oran, Annaba and Constantine.

Oran was dependent on uncertain supplies of rainwater, while Annaba was prone to flooding. Constantine had a complex water distribution network that had fallen into disrepair.

Since 2000, GTZ has been involved in the reform effort. German support has not been big-budget – Berlin is spending only e14m ($19.5m) between 2000 and 2011, but its focus has been on improving the management of the system.

Reinforcing supply

Since 2008, more than a dozen desalination projects have been awarded to international companies in various provinces of the country. These are set to come onstream over the next 12 months. The political climate is also favouring further progress. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently stressed the importance of water projects in the government’s 2010-2014 development programme.

Water minister Abdelmalek Sellal says 93 per cent of the population is now connected to the water network and the inhabitants in more than 70 per cent of municipalities have access to an average 168 litres of water per person. The minister’s promised 19 new dams in just four years should further reinforce the security of supply. It seems finally Algeria is getting to grips with its water problems.

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