Water for forests in North Africa

By Joris Voorhoeve, Professor Emeritus International Organizations, Former Cabinet Minister of The Netherlands


Sometimes it is necessary to go against intuitive common sense, which tells us that one should tackle difficult tasks one by one. There are occasions in which it is better to combine them and tackle them together. There are at least 15 serious problems concerning Europe and Africa that, if tackled together, offer new opportunities:

1. Western European populations want to reduce migration from Africa in particular, but this cannot be done structurally with the current European policies, as they offer little opportunities for African people.

2. North-Western Europe has a capital surplus. Banks charge each other negative interest rates, and government bonds and savings accounts generate only miserly returns. Where to find better investment opportunities?

3. European countries aim to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels by solar energy, but the energy yield from solar energy in Northern Europe is only one third of the yield in North Africa.

4. It has not yet been proven possible in practice to use or store carbon dioxide economically on a large scale.

5. Photosynthesis by means of plants, sunlight, soil and water is probably still the most efficient method to capture CO2, but there seems to be a great lack of land and water.

6. The Paris climate agreement has not yet achieved much; many assume we face a steep rise in temperature above 1.5 degrees Celsius. It could become 2.5 to 3.5 degrees warmer.

7. Sea level rise seems to be accelerating, and Antarctic ice masses seem to be melting gradually. Nobody knows if the tipping point has already been reached, after which acceleration is no longer easy to slow down. When the polar ice masses of the North and South melt, the sea level rises by an average of 80 meters.

8. If that becomes reality, the Netherlands will have to choose between huge dike and reclamation works with very high collective costs to preserve the provinces below sea-level, or (partly) moving to the higher East of the country and to Germany, giving up very expensive infrastructure and urban capital goods.

9. Africa has high levels of open and hidden unemployment. But a large part of the international business community is reluctant to invest in Africa for the well-known reasons: excessive risks.

10. Political instability is increasing in Africa, partly as a result of the low level of job creation by many African governments.

11. There is an increasing lack of fresh water for the expanding populations and for irrigation.

12. As most people in the world live in coastal areas and have been pumping up groundwater for hundreds of years, the intrusion of seawater and salination of groundwater is increasing.

13. Desalination of seawater (containing 30-40 grams of salt (NaCl) per litre) requires a lot of fossil or nuclear energy, but desalination of brackish groundwater (3 grams per litre) can be done with little energy using new methods (approx. 35 Watt for 20 litres of drinking water or 40 litres of irrigation water per hour).

14. The energy needs of parts of Western Europe can be based more strongly on solar energy if modern cable technology is used to transport electricity from sunnier areas to the North, but instability in North African and some southern European countries discourages the needed large investments.

15. The political instability and frequency of civil wars is increasing, especially (but not only) due to the rapid spread of small arms, population growth and unemployment in Africa, the large surplus of unemployed young men, environmental degradation, poor governance, corruption and radicalisation, forming together a very explosive mixture.

The reader understands to where these 15 points lead: large-scale investments must be made in forest planting, forest restoration, labor-intensive agriculture and horticulture, and desalination of water in North Africa. With the exception of Morocco, this does not yet happen enough, because no such large projects are set up by the business community. Business leaders seek financial returns in the short and medium term. The required investments are huge, and the returns are only visible after about 15 years. Many weak government leaders do not want to take responsibility for long-term projects that cost billions — unless voters ask for them, as is usually the case with road construction, housing and educational institutions.  Development cooperation has shrunk sharply and has become focused on trade benefits, emergency aid and innovation. But that is not enough.

If large international development banks, with a number of North African and West European governments act together with captains of industry, research institutions, savings banks and credit insurers to form consortia for large solar energy production in Northern Africa to develop forestry, agriculture, desalination of water and engineering works, and if institutions like the World Bank Group offer a long-term basic return to savings banks of e.g. 3 % in real terms (after inflation), many of the above issues can be tackled together.

A start could be made on islands in the Mediterranean, or in Southern Europe like Greece, Spain and Portugal, and in Morocco or Tunisia. Once proven feasible, this approach might spread to other African countries.