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Seawater desalination meets the growing needs of African coastal cities

The pressure on water resources is increasing in African cities. Countries vulnerable to global warming and water scarcity are massively opting for seawater desalination due to falling costs.

North Africa was a pioneer in the desalination of seawater to respond to the scarcity of surface water resources. Morocco, in the 1980s, built several stations in the Saharan provinces before expanding into ten coastal towns.

In this tourist-oriented country, many projects are underway, including the construction of the largest resort in Casablanca. The kingdom’s national water plan plans to reach one billion cubic meters of desalinated water by 2050. Even if the best solution is still to save water. The kingdom emphasizes the reuse of wastewater, in particular for watering green spaces and golf courses.

“The Casablanca desalination plant, with a production capacity of 300 million cubic meters per year, operational in 2027, will be the largest in Africa”

Abdelkader Amara, Moroccan Minister of Equipment

to the Economist

Another pioneer country, Algeria has opted for seawater desalination from the first water crises, with today a percentage of 17% of the drinking water distributed in the country. Algeria currently has eleven large seawater desalination plants, which produce more than 561 million cubic meters per year. A number that is expected to double again by 2030, in order to reserve the use of dam water for agriculture and industry.

Tunisia is not to be outdone with around a hundred desalination units already in service. A technology which is essential in this country, dependent on tourism and agriculture, while all the underground water tables are overexploited. Ambitious projects are underway, including the Sousse, Gabès and Sfax stations with a capacity of 400,000 m³ / d.

Egypt, the most populous country in the region, is catching up. The Egyptian authorities announced in July 2020 the construction of 47 desalination plants in order to cope with a drop in the water of the Nile which could follow the impoundment of the great Ethiopian Renaissance dam. The Nile is still the only source of fresh water in the country. The government has set a target of 2.44 million cubic meters of water per day by 2025.

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The other African countries took the turn of desalination later, even if the severe drought that southern Africa has experienced in recent years has anchored in the minds that rivers and groundwater are not sufficient to meet the needs of the population and industry. Elsewhere, Ghana was the first West African country to inaugurate a 60,000 m³ / day plant in Accra and projects are underway in Senegal, Cape Verde, Nigeria (Lagos) and also in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa.

As the thirst for capital cities grows, technologies evolve and the costs of desalination have fallen sharply since the 2000s, thanks to the rise of reverse osmosis technology – water is filtered through very thin membranes which retain salt , much less energy-consuming than traditional thermal technology which consists in separating the salt and the water by distillation. The price of membranes has been divided by ten in twenty years and the drinking water sector being a priority, the sector attracts funding from donors.

The share of energy represents 40% of the cost of desalination. This is why the production of drinking water is linked to the electrification of these countries and preferably to the development of renewable energies.

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