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Desalination in Morocco: meeting water demands in a water-scarce region

Reverse osmosis filter. ©González-Cebrián/Smart Water Magazine.
Reverse osmosis filter. ©González-Cebrián/Smart Water Magazine.

With a semi-arid climate, uneven rainfall patterns, and a burgeoning population, securing a reliable water supply is a critical challenge in Morocco. Desalination emerges as a key element of the government’s strategy to ensure water security.

Water scarcity is a growing concern for many countries worldwide, and Morocco, with a semi-arid climate, is no exception. The country faces several factors driving water scarcity. Erratic rainfall and frequent droughts leave traditional water sources like dams and groundwater vulnerable. Additionally, climate change projections predict a decrease in precipitation, further exacerbating water scarcity. Population growth, increasing urbanization and agricultural water demands also put a strain on existing water resources. These factors combine to create a situation where traditional supplies are insufficient to meet the water demands of the population, agriculture, and industry.

Water security challenges are compounded by the unequal distribution of water over space and time, with most of the surface water resources concentrated in the northwest of the country. Meanwhile, the Western Sahara in the south, a disputed and non-autonomous territory according to the United Nations and under Moroccan administration, has almost non-existent conventional water resources.

According to World Bank data, in Morocco, the agricultural sector – responsible for 14% of the country’s GDP - accounts for almost 88% of total national water demand. Reduced water availability and lower crop yields due to water scarcity could reduce GDP by up to 6.5%. In this context, the government is encouraging a transition to unconventional water sources, such as desalinated seawater or the reuse of treated wastewater, as a viable strategy to augment the available water supply and provide a reliable source of freshwater independent of rainfall patterns.

Setting the scene for desalination: Major water actors and plans

Major government actors in water resource management in Morocco include the Ministry of Equipment and Water and the National Office of Electricity and Water (ONEE). The first one determines governmental priorities and invests in large infrastructure projects. ONEE, operating under the Ministry of Energy Transition and Sustainable Development, is the national water and electricity utility, responsible for the provision of drinking water and wastewater services, focusing on ensuring access to drinking water, especially in rural areas, diversifying production sources, and controlling water demand. In addition to ONEE’s role in the water sector, private companies are responsible for drinking water delivery and distribution in some cities.

In 2020 the Moroccan government, as part of its National Water Plan (PNE or Plan national de l'eau) for 2020-2050, launched the National Programme for Potable Water Supply and Irrigation 2020-2027 (Programme national d'approvisionnement en eau potable et d'irrigation or PNAEPI). The PNAEPI aims to diversify the sources of supply, guarantee water security, and reduce climate change impacts by accelerating investments to strengthen water supply for drinking and irrigation uses. In May 2023 the government increased the programme’s budget allocation to US$14.3 billion.

Last January the Minister of Equipment and Water Nizar Baraka told Parliament that water desalination is a priority for managing the water deficit, as reported by the Moroccan news agency, MAP. He added that by 2030, half of the country's drinking water supply will be sourced from desalination, underscoring the government's commitment to constructing multiple desalination facilities to achieve a production target of 1.4 billion cubic metres by that date. As per the government's strategy, coastal towns will source their water from desalination plants, while surface water will be used to meet the needs of inland areas.

Morocco is encouraging a transition to unconventional water sources, such as desalinated seawater or the reuse of treated wastewater

Considering desalinated seawater, eleven desalination plants were operational in 2023, according to Spain’s Trade and Investment Institute ICEX. Three of them provide water for industry, linked to the OCP (Office Chérifien des Phosphates), and eight facilities supply mainly drinking water, although the Agadir plant also produces water for irrigation purposes. It is anticipated that by 2030 the total number of these facilities will have increased by nine, reaching a total of twenty operational desalination plants. Moreover, at least some of the planned facilities will produce water for more than one purpose, e.g. drinking water and agricultural uses, and drinking water and industrial uses.

The government is committed to constructing multiple desalination facilities to achieve a production target of 1.4 billion m3 by 2030

Minister Baraka also noted that the OCP will be responsible for the desalination of 560 million m3, with 500 million m3 allocated for agricultural purposes, while the remainder will be used as drinking water. The state-owned OCP Group, a global leader in soil fertility and plant nutrition solutions, is another major player in the desalination space in Morocco. Last February the African Development Bank and OCP announced agreements totalling $188 million to help fund the OCP Group’s Green Investment Program supplying clean drinking water to the towns around three new modular desalinisation plants, with a total annual capacity of 110 million m3. Part of the produced water will be used for OCP’s industrial and mining sites, and up to 75 million m3 of drinking water will be provided for the towns of Safi and El Jadida and the areas around the OCP Group’s Safi and Jorf plants, benefitting over 1.5 million people.

As part of those agreements, a $20 million loan from the Clean Technology Fund (CTF), will be used to fund storage systems for energy generated from renewable sources, supplying the desalination plants and other OCP Group production units. “Our sustainability objectives aim to achieve 100 per cent unconventional water by 2024, 100 percent renewable energy by 2027, self-sufficiency in green ammonia by 2032, and full carbon neutrality by 2040”, said Karim Lotfi Senhadji, Finance Director of the OCP Group.

  • The state-owned OCP Group, a leader in soil fertility and plant nutrition solutions, is a major player in the desalination space in Morocco
    The state-owned OCP Group, a leader in soil fertility and plant nutrition solutions, is a major player in the desalination space in Morocco

Existing desalination plants

The use of seawater desalination and demineralization of brackish groundwater to produce drinking water started in the Saharan areas of southern Morocco, owing to water shortages in these areas. Desalination of seawater and brackish water was an obvious option to increase the water supply given the country’s 3,500 km of coastline and a brackish water potential of about 500 million m3, as El-Ghzizel et al. explained in their 2021 study “Desalination in Morocco: status and prospects”. The first brackish water plant, using electrodialysis technology, was installed in Tarfaya, and the first seawater desalination facility – a compression distillation unit – was installed in Boujdour in the 1970s. In the 1990s ONEE started to focus on reverse osmosis (RO) and in 1995 the Laayoune SWRO plant was built. Existing desalination plants have significantly contributed to meeting the water needs of their respective regions, particularly in areas facing acute water scarcity. Some notable desalination facilities are described next.

Laayoune. ONEE built one of the biggest SWRO plants to supply the city of Laayoune in 1995, with a capacity of nearly 7,000 m3/d, expandable to 26,000 m3/d after the completion of two phases in 2005 and 2010. In recent years the facility at this coastal city in Western Sahara underwent expansion to increase its capacity by 26,000 m3 per day for a total production capacity of 62,000 m3 per day in 2022.

Al Hoceima. Designed and built by Tedagua in 2020, the Al Hoceima plant provides drinking water to approximately 150,000 people in the city of Al Hoceima and surrounding areas, on the country’s Mediterranean coast. It is a reverse osmosis desalination plant with a drinking water production capacity of 17,300 m3/day.

Jorf Lasfar. Cadagua (Ferrovial Group) built this desalination plant for OCP’s Jorf Lasfar industrial complex on the country’s northeastern coast, about 120 km south of Casablanca, with a portion of the production intended for the water supply of El Jadida. Initially, with a capacity of 75,000 m3 per day and the possibility of expanding it to 100,000 m3 per day, OCP is planning its expansion to meet its increasing water demand.

Agadir desalination plant. Credit: Coxabengoa.
Agadir desalination plant. Credit: Coxabengoa.

Agadir. Coxabengoa – before known as Abengoa, renamed as Coxabengoa after Cox Energy acquired its assets - was awarded the contract for the design, construction, financing, operation and maintenance over a 30-year period (including construction) of this desalination plant in 2017, through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) with ONEE and the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, Maritime Fisheries, Rural Development and Water and Forests.

The Agadir desalination plant, with a capacity of 275,000 m3/day, is the biggest desalination plant in commercial operation in Africa

With a capacity of 275,000 m3/day and the possibility of expansion up to 400,000 m3/day, it is the biggest desalination plant in commercial operation in Africa, and the largest desalination plant designed and conceived for combined use for drinking water and irrigation worldwide. “It has been successfully operating for more than a year and a half, producing a nominal capacity of 150,000 m3/day of drinking water to supply the population of Agadir and 125,000 m3/day to feed 13,600 ha of irrigation area (15,300 ha in the future)”, explains Coxabengoa, noting as well that the plant “has become a key asset to boost critical sectors in the region such as agriculture and tourism”. Chtouka Ait Baha, the area covered by the irrigation water supply network, produces 65% of Moroccan vegetables and fruits exports.

The facility also promotes the conservation of the aquifers in the area, adjoining the national park of Sous Massa, preventing overexploitation, and contributing to the conservation of flora and fauna.

A future focused on desalination

Recognizing the importance of desalination, Morocco has ambitious plans to expand its desalination capacity. The government’s ambitious target of producing 1.4 billion cubic meters of desalinated water annually by 2030 requires significant investment in new plants, with several facilities currently under construction or in the planning stages. Some of the upcoming desalination projects are detailed below.

In 2023, the contract for the second largest desalination plant in the world, in Casablanca, was awarded to a consortium of ACCIONA and partners

Casablanca. In 2023, the contract for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of this SWRO plant in Morocco’s largest city, the second largest desalination plant in the world, was awarded to a consortium of ACCIONA with Moroccan companies Afriquia Gaz and Green of Africa. The future plant, to be located about 40 kilometres southwest of Casablanca, will be completed in 2026 and initially provide 200 million m3 of water annually for irrigation and municipal water supply in Casablanca, Settat, Berrechid, Azemmour, and El Jadida. A subsequent phase will expand the facility's capacity to 300 million m3 annually by 2030.

Dakhla. The contract to build a desalination plant in Dakhla, a coastal city in Western Sahara, has been awarded to Dakhla Water & Energy Company (DAWEC), a joint venture between International Power, the subsidiary of the French group Engie and Nareva, the subsidiary of the Moroccan group Al Mada, which will also operate the facility for 20 years. The plant will have a capacity of 37 million m3 of drinking water per year (100,000 m3 per day). Most of it, 30 million m3, will be used for agricultural irrigation, and the rest to supply drinking water to the city of Dakhla. DAWEC will use wind energy via a wind farm connected to the grid of the ONEE.

Morocco’s future developments are looking to integrate renewable energy sources like solar and wind power into desalination plants

El Jadida and Safi. In 2023 Morocco’s government signed an MoU with OCP to provide desalinated water to the cities of Safi and El Jadida. This memorandum falls within the framework of accelerating the implementation of the National Program for Drinking Water Supply and Irrigation Water 2020-2027. The government decided in February 2022 to develop a complementary program that includes a partnership with OCP for the long-term and sustainable mobilization of water resources through seawater desalination, in order to cope with the exceptional drought situation.

The Ministry of Equipment and Water announced in August 2023 that the desalination plant in Safi had started operations: in 2023, 10 million m3 of desalinated water would be supplied to Safi and 30 million m3 to El Jadida. This volume would gradually increase to reach 30 million m3 per year for Safi and 45 million m3 per year for El Jadida in 2026; in addition, 35 million m3 per year would be used by OCP’s industrial operations. Seawater desalination will be carried out in four units, two of which are located in the Jorf Lasfar industrial site and the other two in Safi.

Osmosun project in Morocco’s neighbor Mauritania. Credit: Osmosun.
Osmosun project in Morocco’s neighbor Mauritania. Credit: Osmosun.

Nador. Another desalination facility is planned in the city of Nador, on the country’s Mediterranean coast. A tender will be launched for a desalination plant with a capacity of 250,000 m3 per year, Minister Baraka said in October 2023.

Tangier. The government announced in 2022 the assessment study of another desalination project in the northern city of Tangier. Following an initial study phase of two years, a tender would be launched to find the contractors to deliver the project. However, and according to news media, a construction contract signed in February 2023 was later cancelled and stalled due to lack of land.

In addition to those mentioned, further plans for desalination plants are underway. ONEE is planning to build additional seawater desalination plants in Essaouira and Guelmim, and the Oriental region. The Essaouira plant will have a capacity of nearly 53 million m3 per year, while the Guelmim plant will be able to supply some 35 million m3 of water per year, to be used for drinking water and irrigation. Meanwhile, the plant planned in the Oriental region will supply about 100 million mof water per year when it is commissioned, extendable to 200 million per year.

Challenges and considerations

Ongoing and planned projects highlight Morocco's commitment to desalination as a key strategy for water security. However, while desalination offers a promising solution, it's not without its challenges. Desalination is energy-intensive, so future developments are looking to integrate solar and wind power into desalination plants, in order to reduce operational costs and decrease their environmental footprint. Additionally, the environmental impact of brine disposal, a byproduct of desalination, needs careful consideration.

Desalination is key in coastal cities to alleviate the water stress of the whole watershed, but also to secure access in remote locations

Morocco’s plans for new desalination plants include the use of renewable energy sources to power them. Using alternative energies to power desalination is the focus of a partnership being Metito Utilities and Tahliya Group announced last December. The two companies intend to develop a multi-user irrigation project, using desalinated water, in Morrocco.

Another partnership of interest is between Osmosun and the Moroccan industrial group PCS to create Osmosun MA. This joint venture will focus on small and medium-capacity desalination projects to supply drinking water to isolated areas across Morocco. Desalination is being implemented for coastal cities to alleviate the water stress of the whole watershed, but also for remote locations to secure access to a freshwater supply, and this is where Osmosun’s expertise and innovation plays a key role in ensuring alignment with green energy goals. “The most cost-effective way to power desalination plants is with solar energy, the OSMOSUN solar powered desalination plants, used both for seawater and brackish water, are to play a critical role”, explains the company.

Osmosun project in Morocco’s neighbor Mauritania. Credit: Osmosun.
Osmosun project in Morocco’s neighbor Mauritania. Credit: Osmosun.

OCP’s future plans also bank on renewables to power desalination facilities. As part of their $13 billion Green Investment Strategy to increase fertilizer production capacity while achieving carbon neutrality by 2040, OCP will use zero-emissions energy to power new desalination plants to meet the Group’s needs and supply water for drinking and irrigation purposes in areas nearby OCP sites, such as the mentioned schemes in Safi and El Jadida. In addition, at their green ammonia production complex planned in the south of Tarfaya, which includes a desalination plant with a capacity of 60 million m3 to meet the water demand of both the industrial facilities and regional water needs, power will be produced by a solar and wind farm.

In conclusion, desalination has become an indispensable tool for Morocco to address water scarcity and meet its growing water demands. Existing desalination plants play a vital role, and ambitious plans for further expansion are underway. While challenges exist, a commitment to renewable energy integration, research in desalination technology, and responsible brine management offer promising pathways for a sustainable desalination future. As Morocco continues to develop its desalination capabilities, it paves the way for a water-secure future for its population, agriculture, and industry.