ONEE Morocco: Leveraging partnerships to foster innovation

Al Massira dam, 120 km from Marrakech in Morocco © Office National de l'Electricite et de l'Eau Potable (ONEE)

Lalla Asma El Kasmi shines a light on Morocco’s dynamic response to water and sanitation management, which has transformed the sector’s service delivery.

In a context of global changes, where innovation is key to tackling water-related challenges, cooperation and partnerships are vital to fostering innovation and jump-starting the performance and efficiency of utilities, thereby translating constraints into opportunities.

Water challenges

Morocco is a North African country characterised by a semi-arid climate, with limited and irregular water resources and unequal water distribution, with half of the country’s water reserves located in seven per cent of the territory in the extreme north.

Climate change has the potential to strongly impact Morocco’s water resources and the most severe drought for 30 years has affected resources acutely.

The country’s water deficit is worsening under the combined effect of climate change and an increase in water demand because of socio-economic development. During the past four years, the water deficit has exceeded 50%, with a maximum of 85% in 2022. With approximately 600 m3/inhabitant/year, Morocco is currently facing a significant water shortage.

The situation is expected to worsen, as climate experts estimate an overall rise in temperatures during the coming decades and a decline in precipitation, coupled with extreme periods of drought.

Water supply and sanitation achievements

Since its independence, Morocco has engaged in a dynamic and proactive policy to promote access to water. This policy materialised through the creation of significant infrastructure covering the entire water cycle, including: water mobilisation through numerous dams; water treatment and transport to consumers; and wastewater collection and purification before release into the environment.

The National Office of Electricity and Potable Water (ONEE), which controls more than 85% of national drinking water production, has put in place several production systems, including the mobilisation of surface water and water from different aquifers across the country. In addition, coastal areas with no conventional water resources have been provided with seawater desalination plants.

Thanks to a dynamic planning process and significant investment, all urban populations had access to safe drinking water as early as the mid-1990s, despite the years of severe drought that the country has experienced in recent decades.

This was made possible by the infrastructure developed by ONEE, with a drinking water production capacity of around 78.6 m3/s produced by 92 treatment plants, including eight desalination plants and 11 demineralisation plants.

In 2021, the water produced amounted to 1.3 billion m3, transported to the various localities of the country by adductor systems with a linear reach close to 14,100 km. This production effort included the development of distribution networks in the 762 localities where ONEE manages drinking water distribution, serving 2.4 million customers.

In rural areas, access to drinking water did not exceed 14% in 1994. This required special attention and resulted in the implementation of several programmes that achieved a 98.2% access rate in 2021.

As for liquid sanitation, a National Liquid Sanitation Programme was initiated by the public authorities in 2005, with the aim of overcoming the delay in this sector. In 2018, this programme became the National Mutualized Urban and Rural Sanitation and Wastewater Reuse Programme.

This programme aims to achieve a connection rate of 95% and a depollution rate of 76% in urban areas by 2040, by equipping 1200 towns in rural areas with sanitation infrastructure, and enabling the reuse of 573 million m3 of treated wastewater.

By the end of 2021, ONEE was managing the liquid sanitation service in 150 localities, gathering a population of six million and achieving a connection rate of 91.5%. ONEE now has 126 wastewater treatment plants with a total capacity of more than 471,400 m3/day, allowing a depollution rate of 86.9%.

Between 1999 and 2021, investments made by ONEE in the sectors of drinking water and liquid sanitation amounted to €6.5 billion.

Tackling the water deficit

With regards to drinking water production, the high dependence on conventional water resources, which is currently close to 97%, makes the supply of drinking water in several regions of the Kingdom vulnerable to climatic variations. The balance between the demand and supply of conventional water is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in some regions, and the use of non-conventional water resources, particularly seawater desalination, is becoming an imperative.

In this regard, ONEE has capitalised on more than 45 years’ experience in the field of seawater desalination, which has resulted in the creation of nine desalination plants with an overall capacity of more than 230,000 m3/day. The oldest of these was built in Boujdour Province, in Western Sahara, in 1977.

Taking advantage of the many assets of Morocco, including its 3500 km coastline and strong coastal urbanisation, there has also been significant development of renewable energies, offering electricity from wind and solar at a competitive cost, resulting in a significant reduction in operating costs.

The rate of achievement of desalination plants has been accelerated during the past three years, with the completion of four desalination plants in Al Hoceima (operating at 17,280 m3/day), Tarfaya (operating at 430 m3/day), Laâyoune (operating at 26,000 m3/day) and Agadir, carried out in partnership between ONEE and the Ministry of Agriculture in the framework of a public private partnership (PPP) which has a capacity of 275,000 m3/day, of which 150,000 m3/day is dedicated to drinking water. The capacity of the Agadir desalination plant will be extended to 400,000 m3/day, shared equally between drinking water and irrigation use.

A further 12 seawater desalination projects are planned, with an overall capacity of 1.3 million m3/day, representing more than 40% of the total additional drinking water production capacity projected for 2035. These projects will strengthen and secure the drinking water supply of some major cities in the regions of Casablanca-Settat, Dakhla-Oued Eddahab, Guelmim-Oued Noun, Marrakech-Safi, Souss Massa, Laâyoune Sakia El Hamra, and the Oriental region. These achievements will reduce dependence on conventional resources, from 97% currently to nearly 80% in 2035.

The reuse of treated wastewater is another non-conventional water resource that has been mobilised to counter the overextraction of conventional water resources. Morocco has increased its wastewater treatment rate from seven per cent in 2006 to more than 50% in 2020 and has plans to increase this rate to 80% in 2050. Among the 70 million m3/year of reused wastewater currently operational at country level, ONEE reuses 20 million m3/year of wastewater for industrial needs and the irrigation of green spaces.

In a context of climate change and water resources scarcity, there is much to be gained from the improvement of water efficiency through non-revenue water reduction, both for agriculture and drinking water, and by raising awareness among populations and all users of the need for a more rational use of water.

Territorial planning must take into account the water resources available before authorising development of tourist or industrial projects that consume a lot of water. Similarly, for agriculture, the choice of crops and areas to be developed must be in harmony with the water resources available.

Importance of cooperation

Delivering on such complex challenges cannot be achieved by working in isolation. Water utilities are now firmly convinced that cooperation and partnerships provide a wide scope of possibilities to marshal new ideas. At an operational level, this means connecting a variety of stakeholders from water operators, academia and research centres, the private sector, and funding institutions.

Institutional innovation

The merger, in 2012, of Morocco’s national water and electricity companies, resulting in the creation of ONEE, has helped the country to address the water-energy nexus more seamlessly, with ONEE responsible for the production, transport and distribution of electricity and drinking water, as well as the treatment of wastewater.

Strength through cooperation

One of the priorities for ONEE in the field of water and liquid sanitation is to find ways to improve operational performance while delivering services at the best cost and quality, and building personnel capacity. Several partnerships have been forged with innovation champions across Europe and the USA. The purpose of these partnerships is to keep abreast of the latest technologies. For example, in the field of seawater desalination, where energy consumption is higher than traditional water production systems, ONEE is making every effort to keep abreast of the latest desalination technologies and is looking into innovations that can best optimise performance and costs, such as energy recovery. Indeed, the desalination technology used in Morocco is reverse osmosis, currently the most developed in the world, that benefits from a sustained technological evolution, enabling lower investment and operating costs.

In this regard, ONEE partnered with the Ambassador’s Water Experts Program, in the USA, to encourage technical cooperation activities through a series of webinars and in-person visits in both Morocco and the USA. One outcome of this partnership is a webinar that took place in March 2022 on the forecast of technological development in desalination and operating strategies for performance and cost optimisation. Within the framework of this optimisation, all future desalination projects implemented by ONEE will be powered by renewable energy sources, thereby contributing to sustainable development in Morocco.

In the field of non-revenue water, ONEE is setting up several innovative projects in partnership with leading companies in Europe and Morocco. For example, in the city of Khouribga, which has 200,000 inhabitants, a partnership with a French company for leak detection and repair has made it possible to improve commercial yield by 11% within only three months of the beginning of the project, in August 2021. At the end of the project’s five-year period, ONEE expects to reduce water losses by 35%.

Moreover, in the field of water quality, ONEE’s central laboratory in Rabat has acquired strong scientific and technical tools to guarantee water quality. Partnerships with water quality champions in Europe, Canada and the USA are key to embracing innovation for the establishment of a Laboratory Information Management System, providing water quality accreditation and developing ozonation technology.

Digital transformation

Morocco aspires to be a leading digital hub in Africa. The country has worked on advancing its digital sector by introducing e-government solutions to facilitate administrative procedures for citizens and residents.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, water operators around the world have been facing challenges such as reduced workforces and increased maintenance requirements. Being aware of the opportunities offered by digitisation, ONEE focuses on the integration of smart water technologies to foster greater efficiency and faster responses in planning, operation and service delivery. It is in this context that ONEE, with the support of international funding institutions, such as the World Bank, is on track to integrate innovative technologies into its business, using artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, data analytics and machine learning.

Water-energy-food nexus

With the current conditions of water resources scarcity, it has become essential to manage this resource with the utmost care. An important aspect of integrated water resources management in Morocco is the consideration of the water-energy-food nexus.

Governments around the world, especially in lower-income countries, are turning to PPPs to fund multipurpose projects. Through partnerships of this kind, the private sector can alleviate initial capital costs and act as an agent for change, driving transformation in water management.

The Agadir seawater desalination plant is an example of a project launched jointly by ONEE and the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture through a PPP to fund the construction and operation of the desalination plant, based on a Build Operate Transfer approach over a period of 30 years. The project was commissioned in January 2022 and provides both drinking water and irrigation.

An important future project is the Casablanca desalination plant, which will be one of the biggest in Africa, with a starting capacity of 548,000 m3/day, which will be extended to 822,000 m3/day and powered by renewable energy. The project will be implemented through a 30-year PPP agreement between ONEE, the Ministry of Equipment and Water, and a private consortium to be selected.

In addition to PPPs, ONEE has initiated several partnerships with Moroccan institutions operating in industry and agriculture sectors, such as the Office Chérifien des Phosphates, the leading exporter of phosphates-based products in Morocco. Projects include energy recovery from biogas, wastewater reuse and phosphates washing.

Research and training

In the field of water and liquid sanitation, specialised schools and universities often provide training that can benefit collaborative working. The International Institute for Water and Sanitation (IEA-ONEE) is a recognised centre of excellence that provides annual training and capacity building programmes for more than 200 water professionals and technicians from Sub-Saharan African countries, covering all technical and management aspects of water and liquid sanitation services. It also carries out applied R&D projects for the development and testing of new water technologies, such as the Air Water pilot project, implemented in partnership with a Dutch company to produce drinking water using air moisture in remote or inaccessible areas of Morocco.

For more than 20 years, ONEE has drawn on its long experience in the field of water and liquid sanitation to provide support to water and sanitation operators in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab states. A good example is the ambitious liquid sanitation project for the city of Conakry in Guinea, where the Moroccan institution provides technical assistance and capacity building activities to Guinean stakeholders in charge of sanitation. Funding of this project is secured by the Islamic Development Bank through a South-South cooperation mechanism.

The development of triangular cooperation (North-South-South) through the design and implementation of capacity building programmes directed towards Sub-Saharan African countries and Arab states, with the support of several international donors and cooperation agencies, has also proven to be effective.

This cooperation mechanism formed the basis of a partnership between ONEE, the Belgian Development Agency and the African Water Association, implemented in 2018 to support the capacity building of African women in the water sector. The programme attracted participants from Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Senegal.

Partnerships in the water sector make a considerable contribution and help catalyse new technologies and innovations, especially among emerging markets and developing economies with high vulnerability to climate change, as is the case for Morocco.

Lessons learned from ONEE Morocco highlight the importance of cross-sectoral partnerships that allow concrete actions to improve water, energy and food security.

At national level, such partnerships are expected to develop further. At international level, partnerships can jump-start innovation by connecting innovation champions from water utilities, research and academia, technology providers, and funding institutions.

Partnerships are also relevant in the context of South-South and North-South-South cooperation, to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals for water and sanitation. l

More information

March 2022 webinar on the forecast of technological development in desalination and operating strategies for performance and cost optimisation:

Dr Lalla Asma El Kasmi is Director of Cooperation & Communication at the National Office for Electricity and Potable Water – Water Branch, Morocco.