By Nabil El Aid El Othmani
There is yet no real substance to the Union of the Arab Maghreb better known as UMA and indeed, very few strategic options in the region have been achieved since the agreement was formally signed by all member nations in 1989. Until now, there is no agreement in the fields of energy, drinking water or food autonomy that binds the UMA nations in a collaborative framework with common goals. The only relevant item is a convention for the conservation of the environment signed in 1994.
The answer as to why that is clear in the light of the recent Arab Spring is that, until recently, the region was plagued with dictators and mafia like regimes, completely stalling the growth of the Union or even its ability function, to just breathe. However, there is a sticking issue yet unresolved: that of the dispute between Algeria and Morocco about the southern Sahara provinces of Morocco. The answer to that issue can only be political and I do not wish to dwell on politics.
This is not therefore a political piece but an outlook in the shared interests of both Morocco and Algeria and indeed of the region in the light of the new deal. About how, working together, we can use renewable energy as a lever to address other pressing concerns for the region, namely food and water autonomy and usher a new era in line with the spirit that inspired the creation of the Union in the first place.
Renewable Energy as a Framework for Regional Development
As things stand, Morocco has set a national target of reaching 42% of renewables in its energy mix by 2020 and budgeted $9BN for solar alone. The initial capacity to be developed stood at 2000MW until DESERTEC announced beginning work on an additional solar farm, its first in the region, with a 500Mw capacity. As a result, Morocco should dispose of 5.6GW of yearly solar production by 2020 with a capacity of 2500Mw.
Observers have noted that a race is already heating up between Morocco and Algeria to position them in this new sector. Both nations’ sights are aimed at satisfying domestic demand and exporting energy to the European market. Algeria, in the wake of Morocco’s ambitions, has announced its own objective of reaching 40% of renewables in its energy mix by 2030. It has set aside a massive $60BN budget to accomplish that, and Algeria’s SONELGAZ chief executive Noureddine Boutarfa is convinced that Algeria can export 10 GW of solar power to Europe a year, if the right conditions are met.
What to do with so much energy? Well, address our future challenges in a comprehensive way, namely the questions of water and food autonomy.
The untold amounts of megawatts we can gather from the sun is enough to power desalination stations in a sustainable way by offsetting the major cost of desalination: energy. Membrane-based reverse osmosis desalination is energy intensive and uses high grade electrical energy input, which accounts for 44% of its cost. Solar energy as a power source for desalination stations is recently being implemented in the Middle East.
Having addressed the water issue, we can embark on reclaiming arid land in our southern provinces through micro irrigation and pivot plant agriculture as a way to free ourselves from dependency on rainfall, an important point when taken in the context of global warming and declining precipitations. Large swaths of UMA's territory are already arid. Desertification is not something that you contain, it has to be fought back.
This approach for Morocco can be a viable long term solution for its food and water autonomy in this first half century. And it can be a common framework on which to restart and build up the Union for the Arab Maghreb for the commonwealth of its people.
Beyond Building up capacity, A Northern African Supergrid sine qua non
The challenge for UMA is and remains integration, which can be based on energy. Our grids have to be inter-operational for us to reap the full benefits of renewable energy. So, a Northern African Supergrid, along the lines of what’s been done in Europe has to be pursued.
Energy Minister Benkhadra recently visited Algeria and met its Algerian counterpart, Mr Youcef Yousfi, to push forward cooperation in energy, electricity, renewable energy and grid integration between the two countries.
Morocco and Algeria are already linked by a 400Kw interconnection implemented after a 2008 agreement, allowing for the transport of Algerian energy to Spain via Morocco. Both sides haves expressed their will to create a common Arab Maghreb market for energy in vue of its linkage to the European market. As a preamble the harmonization of the regulations and tariffs is necessary. That goes for the whole Union as well.
The Maghreb's actual grid interconnections amount for only 1% of the global production capacity of the ensemble. This nominal ratio is way too insufficient for regular and efficient exchanges, such a state of affairs has to be re-mediated to urgently by the UMA nations. Bear in mind that a future Euro-Maghreb partnership in energy cannot be to our advantage if our side is poorly networked and ill equipped regionwide for energy transport.
For the recent news, MEDGRID, a concern of European firms specialized in power transmission, and DESERTEC joined forces. It was expected, MEDGRID is into the transmission business whereas DESERTEC aims at generating a massive amounts of Gigawatts from solar energy. The question is where that leaves us, and whether MEDGRID can look out of the narrow scope of South/North energy transmission and contribute its expertise and know-how to realize an essential piece of the equation, a Northern African Supergrid, that will allow the region to share its power from as far as Egypt to Morocco.
This Northern African Supergrid has to see the light of day because otherwise we would be throwing money out the window in duplicate capacity, and we would also seriously undermine our energy security by being islands in the desert, linked to Europe but not to our neighboring countries.
In terms of competitiveness, we know that a solar panel installed in the Morocco generates as much as six times more power than the very same panel installed in Germany for example. Not only does this mean that we are 6 times more efficient in solar power generation then the Northern countries, it also means we are 6 times more cost competitive.
So the European Commission, DESERTEC and MEDGRID should be engaged to broaden the MEDGRID/DESERTEC agenda by contributing their expertise towards the achievement of a Northern African Supergrid along with the envisaged linkage to Europe. There is no point in us being the equivalent of gas stations for Europe, without building up our own energy infrastructure.
We can still look for partners worldwide to work with us towards grid integration. Even the €400BN DESERTEC is putting on the table can be found elsewhere. When you are 6 times more cost competitive than your target market, investment is always forthcoming. DESERTEC would, in the absence of a cohesive North South integrated development agenda, remain what it is, an initiative.
Dependency towards Europe is fast becoming a thing of the past. Globalization greatly reduced this lever that has been used relentlessly and without care in the past. Now Europe is trying to make a comeback with the DESERTEC initiative in order to secure its energy for the foreseeable future: that of peak oil. Fine, but it should be on our terms.
Food and Water Autonomy through Renewables
Algeria, Morocco to Boost Agricultural Collaboration In the latest indication of warming ties between Algeria and Morocco, the two Maghreb neighbors signed a series of agricultural co-operation agreements last month in Algiers. Worth mentioning is that Morocco was a guest of honor at the annual Algiers agricultural expo this year.
“The signing of these agreements marks the beginning of a co-operation process which we want to be strong,” commented Algerian Agriculture Minister Rachid Benaissa. He added that the presence of 150 high-level Moroccan business figures was a sign of “shared interest in building strong relations between our two countries”. “We are consolidating a process that has been under way since the beginning of this year,” Benaissa said, referring to the April Morocco-Algeria agricultural accord. In a press statement, Moroccan Agriculture Minister Aziz Akhannouch highlighted the fact that his country’s participation in the trade fair was part of a process that the two sides have developed together. “The contact that will be made during this event will make it possible to step up exchanges with a view to feeding our region more successfully,” he added. To put things simply, Algeria should be our first export destination for our agricultural exports. That is, other than food crops such as wheat as we still rely on imports ourselves.
Why? because we are bordering countries, one that has a strong agriculture, that is Morocco, and one that imports lots of food stuffs, Algeria. Trade is always the strongest between bordering countries and that is the rule for all bordering countries. There is no reason why Morocco and Algeria would be exceptions, no reason at all except for murky politics which we cannot, must not, in the general prevailing context of the Arab spring, either perpetuate or sustain. They have to be put aside for the good of both countries.
Morocco needs investments to boost its agricultural sector while Algeria has billions of foreign currency reserves sitting in bank accounts. They can be invested here and in return, Algeria would benefit from its privileged relationship with Morocco, that is, de facto, the agricultural powerhouse of Northern Africa.
As we have seen on the energy and agriculture fronts, bilateral relations between Morocco and Algeria are starting to make sense.
Can Algeria do without Morocco? No, it can’t, it would be shortsighted to put politics above sound economics. Morocco has been voted Africa's country of the future for 2011/2012 by IDF Intelligence and is one of the continent's most attractive countries for foreign investment. Where do Algeria's investments stand in that regard?
Can Morocco overlook Algeria's oil and gas deep wallet as a possible engine for its growth? It can’t, not in a global recession context. Algerians could be paid back handsomely through participations in energy, water and agriculture projects in Morocco and regionally. In agriculture, the mutual benefits between Morocco and Algeria are evident.
In energy, the prospects of seeing a regional energy concern emerge for the coming decades. One that could replace SONATRACH someday is taking shape. Macro projects such as EUROMED with its projected 20GW production and DESERTEC clearly signify opportunity for the emergence of a possible Northern African renewable energy giant. For one, SONELGAZ has already defined the edges of its renewable energy strategy and embarked on subsequent investments.
In a recent speech, King Mohamed VI called for renewing the ties between Algeria and Morocco and putting past disputes aside. When you put things in perspective and look at the brighter side, Morocco and Algeria have a lot to do in common within the Union of the Arab Maghreb. Morocco and Algeria can have the same role in building up UMA as France and Germany, once bitter enemies, did in building Europe, as its gravity center. We're off to a much better start if we play our cards right.
One of the benefits of this multilevel cooperation is deflating any artificial tensions in the region. And I stress the word artificial because if you ask citizens of Morocco or Algeria, they will tell you that the two peoples have no issues with one another. The same certainly applies for the Algerian and Libyan people after the fall of Qaddafi.
Libya's future being rich in oil and gas with a relatively small population is bright. Tunisia is bound to do better. What remains is the Mauritanian question. Mauritania is still lagging far behind other countries of the region, and therefore we have to help. Since it is part of UMA, it has to be brought into their broad agenda, whose goal is and remains the betterment of living standards for the ensemble as a whole. Will it materialize? Signs are that it will. UMA, the Union of the Arab Maghreb has to lift off, on the agriculture, water and renewable energy fronts, all pressing issues for its members.
The mutual interests are evident, the cost of inaction too high to consider. Much time has been wasted already and it’s time to get down to business very much the meaning of His Majesty's recent address to Algeria. We are still far behind our collaboration potential. Algeria’s vast foreign currency reserves, ranking number 15th with 150 $BN, more than the U.S itself, can and should be invested in making important inroads for the development of our renewable energy, agriculture and desalination potential as an ensemble. That means investments here in Morocco and everywhere in UMA where development is only held back by cash issues.
Solving theses questions as an ensemble, in a cohesive manner, presents a strategic structured framework for the region. They are anchor points that can be built upon. As we are faced with the same challenges, we have much to gain through addressing them together, through scientific and technical collaboration as well as cross border investments. Needless to say, the scale of this framework can deliver hundreds of thousands of much need jobs across the region, another key priority for all its governments.
Last but not least, how many of us know that Egypt made a formal request to join the Union of the Arab Maghreb in 1994? Consider that last item as fascinating venue for building together a vast space of peace, development and prosperity stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. One that is infra-structurally integrated and coherent, where a common currency might emerge and with unified energy and sustainable development policies. And yes, democratic. The future looks bright indeed, and that maybe thanks to renewable energy after all.
Based in Rabat, Morocco, Nabil El Aid El Othmani is an International Alumni of the U.S State Department who participated to the 2012 International Leadership Visitor Program about Renewable Energies and Climate Change. He is also member of the board of the NGO MoroccoTomorrow responsible for Green Energies and has been researching renewable energies and sustainable development in Morocco and MENA since 2006.