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The Maghreb’s Painful Climate Wake-up Call

Scorching temperatures, raging wildfires, devastating cyclones, towering waves and catastrophic floods – the Maghreb countries experienced a series of calamitous natural events this past summer. These incidents have underscored the imminent threat posed by climate change in North Africa – and the urgent need for action.

In Tunisia, people endured searing heat in July as temperatures reached almost 50 degrees Celsius, leading to power outages due to a spike in demand for electricity and causing major wildfires in forests and fields in the north-west that left at least one dead from asphyxia.

Similar scenes were witnessed in neighbouring Algeria, where wildfires ravaged forests and towns in the country’s tree-rich northern coastal region. The fires required some 8,000 firefighters to intervene, and 34 people, most of them in Kabylia, perished, including 10 soldiers who found themselves trapped by the blaze during an evacuation operation.

Although unrelated to climate change, Morocco was hit in early September by the strongest earthquake ever recorded instrumentally in the country. With its epicentre in the High Atlas Mountains, 70 kilometres from Marrakesh, the tremor left nearly 3,000 dead, over 5,500 injured and many in need of shelter, health and food in the most affected areas.

Libya bore the brunt soon after. On 10 September, the east of the country was battered by strong winds and heavy rains churned up by Storm Daniel, which destroyed two dams and caused unprecedented deadly flooding in Derna. Over 4,000 people are confirmed dead, with fears that the figure could rise to over 10,000 as thousands remain missing.

This succession of natural disasters, most of them directly related to or made more likely by climate change, drew attention once again to the challenges the region faces on the environmental front. It also demonstrated that, despite pledges by many of these nations to scale up climate adaptation, major gaps remain in their action plan.


Although the challenges and threats vary greatly from one area to another, it is predicted that the Mediterranean basin will be one of the most acutely affected regions in the world by climate change. North African countries in particular face serious risks despite their limited historical responsibility for the emission of greenhouse gases.

One of the effects already being felt is the increase in temperatures, which have risen at twice the global rate in most of the region, particularly in areas close to the Mediterranean coast and in inland Algeria. As a result of this spike, heat waves are set to become more frequent and intense, and the threat of wildfires is growing.

Average annual rainfall has also been decreasing since the 1960s in most of North Africa, but the trend is different from area to area. And while the west has become wetter over the last two decades, in the east rainy days of over 10mm have decreased and the number of consecutive dry days has increased.

From this point on, the region is likely to become more arid and rainfall more erratic, which raises the likelihood of heavy rains and floods.

Another menace hovering over all of North Africa, owing to the heavy concentration of population in coastal areas, is sea level rise, which leaves cities like Algiers, Benghazi and Alexandria highly vulnerable to flooding.

This confluence of adverse effects tied to climate change is already having significant socio-economic impacts on countries in the region, including a reduction in agricultural production, increased food insecurity and growing water scarcity. A crucial industry for North Africa that is also projected to be hard-hit is tourism.

The World Bank, for instance, predicts that Tunisia’s burgeoning tourism industry could suffer losses estimated at up to  USD 2 billion, or about 0.5 per cent of the country’s annual GDP, in the coming decades. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism accounted for roughly 12 per cent of Tunisia’s GDP, according to the OECD.

And while no direct causal link has been established between the impacts of climate change and the eruption of violent conflicts, these environmental hazards can function as ‘threat multipliers’ when entwined with other delicate factors like deteriorating economic conditions, ineffective governance, political instability and heightened competition for finite resources.

In recent years, for instance, armed militants in Libya have taken advantage of severe water shortages in the country to cut off (for political reasons) the supply to the capital, Tripoli, which is transported through a network of pipes carrying groundwater from the Sahara.


Except for Algeria, one of the world’s leading natural gas producers, the historical emissions of the Maghreb states have been relatively low, particularly when considering their per capita emissions. Nevertheless, the region’s climate efforts have predominantly concentrated on mitigation strategies.

“There is very little climate adaptation work going on in the Maghreb region,” urban sustainability and climate consultant Karim Elgendy told FairPlanet. “There is some in Morocco and Tunisia, relating to agriculture and combatting desertification. But most funding goes to climate mitigation, such as renewables, rather than to adaptation.”

Action plans to address the impacts of climate change, much like the effects themselves, vary significantly from one country to another. But there are nonetheless shared elements, such as climate and vulnerability assessments, research on future scenarios, commitments to reduce emissions and the establishment of institutional structures to spearhead these efforts.

The Maghreb nation that has made the greatest strides in energy transition and climate adaptation is by far Morocco, which has pledged to reduce its emissions by over 40 per cent by 2030 with international assistance. The North African state has also worked to improve its infrastructure to detect extreme climate events.

“Morocco is quite a leader on climate action regionally, followed by Tunisia. And Algeria is well behind,” Elgendy noted.

Rabat has shown its strongest dedication to this cause through the development of renewable energy. This pursuit began in the second decade of the 2000s, and Morocco is now on course to achieve its goal of generating approximately 50 per cent of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2023. Among its most notable projects is the Ouarzazate solar park, one of the world’s largest.

Algeria has in turn joined international efforts to mitigate climate change and its effects, and established a national agency for climate change back in 2005. It has also pledged to slash emissions by 22 per cent with the condition of receiving support, and has adopted a national climate strategy that includes short-term plans up to 2025 and longer-term ones up to 2035. Yet ultimately, Algiers has been rather slow to roll out these plans, and at times has even failed to do so.

“In the 1970s, Algeria was a pioneer in environmental protection: it built the largest green dam in the world to enhance biodiversity, used non-polluting gas to fuel cars and adopted laws and frameworks for environmental policies,” Besma Belbedjaoui, an Algerian expert on environment and circular economy, told FairPlanet.

“Then it entered into a stage of indifference, and the entire environmental sector was put on the side,” she added. “It was a disaster [marked by] a terrible decline in environmental protection, old and outdated laws and unclear environmental policies.”

“We are working as organisations and experts to revive the debate,” she noted.

In this case, the roll-out and adoption of renewable energy is also illustrative, but for different reasons than in Morocco. In 2015, Algiers set itself the target of sourcing 27 per cent of its electricity from clean energy by 2030. Today, however, the share still stands at less than 1 per cent as the country remains highly dependent on fossil fuels, especially locally-sourced natural gas.

Tunisia constitutes another a notable example in the Maghreb. After the 2011 uprising, local authorities took charge of climate and environmental action, including adaptation policies, while the central government provided support and guidance.

“The most important thing that Tunisia has done in the last years is [setting up a] general, policy framework,” Adel Ben Youssef, a negotiator on behalf of Tunisia in matters of climate finance during the UN’s climate conferences from 2017 to 2019, told FairPlanet.

“Tunisia has a very good policy framework in matter of adaptation and mitigation,” Ben Youssef, who is also a professor of Economics at the University Côte d’Azur in France, added. “Now it’s [all about] trying to make the deployment and implementation.”

But local initiatives have remained fragmented, often staying at the pilot stage. Studies indicate that most municipalities lack a strategic framework and actionable plans and that their efforts in renewable energies, clean transport and water resource management are limited.

Ben Youssef further noted that since Kais Saied assumed the presidency in Tunisia and passed a new constitution in 2021, this decentralisation has stalled, all mayors have been dismissed and no new ones have yet been appointed, which spawned great confusion.

“This has created instability for investors and municipalities at the local level, because they don’t know if they have the responsibility to do something or not,” Ben Youssef said. “We are missing some opportunities now because there are a lot of interest for projects at the local level in the international community.”

The country in the worst position in the region, however, is Libya, which following decades of despotic rule by former dictator Muammar Gaddafi has been plunged into political instability and fragmentation with recurrent cycles of violence and conflict since 2011. 

As a result, the nation suffers from serious issues of governance, corruption, lack of accountability and neglect, undermining its ability to address disasters and leaving climate action largely unattended.

“When we talk about climate action in Libya for the past decade, since after 2011, [it] has been quite limited, and it’s not taken as a long-term action,” Malak Altaeb, an independent consultant and researcher specialising in environmental issues in Libya, told FairPlanet. She emphasised that the main gaps exist in areas such as water management and food security.

However, Altaeb noted, “for the past couple of years, some environmental offices in municipalities in different parts of the country have been taking the initiative to monitor the situation. “

“It differs from one city to the other,” she added, “but these are good [signs].”


One significant shortcoming often criticised in nearly all Maghreb states is the top-down approach to climate action, where citizens’ voices and participation have limited influence on decision-making and policy formulation.

“I hope to see more international cooperation, with the integration of the civil society and the youth in environmental and climate issues; a real integration, not just a formal one,” said Belbejaoui, who is also the President of the Synargia Environmental Organization.

Partly as a result of marginalising local groups, public awareness about the causes and effects of climate change remains relatively low in the region, and environmental issues tend to occupy peripheral positions on political agendas, despite efforts by some civil society organisations.

“[There should be] a change in behaviours and mindsets, by developing purposeful educational curricula and clear environmental policies and strategies,” Belbejaoui said.

The problem of limited and restricted public access to environmental information is also widespread throughout the Maghreb. This issue poses a significant obstacle to the efforts of local groups and independent studies, and it is especially alarming because the region has a long way to go in terms of adaptation.

Another problem encountered by the Maghreb states when it comes to implementing their mitigation and adaptation actions is the lack of technical and financial capacity, which often pushes them to seek this kind of support abroad, mainly from EU programmes.

“In order to implement the entire policies on climate change [in Tunisia] we need about  USD 20 billion for the period 2023-2030,” Ben Youssef said. “[Yet] we have a huge gap in mobilising public funds.”

The limited economic integration among the states of the region, the long-standing political turmoil in Libya and the fraught historical relations between Morocco and Algeria have also prevented a smooth cooperation on climate affairs among them.

“[Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria could] share knowledge about common challenges, such as drought; they could pool resources, such as forest firefighting equipment, and they could coordinate how to respond to extreme weather such as using common early warning systems,” Elgendy concluded. “The lack of cooperation is [indeed] regrettable.”

Source: Fair Planet