WEST AFRICA • Western Sahara: choosing between development and self-determination

When it comes to renewables, Morocco is rightfully considered to be the leading country in the Maghreb region, if not in all of Africa. The host of last year’s IFCCC conference on climate (the COP22), in recent years Morocco has been an active climate diplomacy actor in the international arena. Domestically, it is currently developing a number of remarkable renewable energy projects – for example, part of the Noor-Ouarzazate solar complex, which will use concentrated solar power (CSP) technology instead of photovoltaics, is the first of its kind. Moreover, it has a very ambitious national energy policy: by 2020, over 40% of power generation capacity will come from renewables. The problem is that, in the process of achieving this goal, the Moroccan government will be exploiting the natural resources of Western Sahara, a territory it has occupied since the 1970s.

This should not come as a surprise. Morocco has been extracting phosphates in Western Sahara for decades, and it has allowed international oil companies to conduct exploration for offshore oil fields (so far unsuccessfully). However, such behaviour is illegal under international law. As a former colony, Western Sahara is one of the few remaining territories that, according to the UN Charter, have an explicit right to independence. In other words, the inhabitants of the region, the Sahrawi people, have a manifest right not only to self-determination but also to independence from Morocco. Also, there is little doubt that Morocco’s commercial use of Western Sahara’s natural resources goes against international law. Although Morocco has iure gestionis over the territory, the revenues it gets from the extraction of phosphates should benefit the Sahrawi people, who according to Art. 26 of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples “have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned”.

In the last decade, Morocco has started to exploit the most abundant natural resources of its southernmost region: wind (which could potentially produce 5000 TWh/year) and sun (solar potential is over 5 kWh/m2/day) [1]. At present only two small wind farms are operational, but much more are planned to be built in the next decade. According to the “Integrated Wind Energy Program” and the “Moroccan Solar Plan”, a significant part of Morocco de-carbonization efforts will depend on renewable energy produced in Western Sahara. Two major solar plants, the Noor-Boujdour (100MW) and Noor-Laayoune (500MW) complexes, are currently under development, along with two more wind farms, at Tiskrad (300MW) and Boujdour (100MW), whose construction is expected to start between 2018 and 2020. As was the case for phosphates, the extraction of solar and wind energy, to which the Sahrawi people have not consented, is illegal.

Nonetheless, the construction of renewable energy complexes in Western Sahara is truly beneficial for many. To begin with, it is good for Morocco, a country that depends on imports of natural gas. With increased energy production capacity, Morocco will have the chance to improve its energy security situation – for example, households would still be able to get warm in the winter if an LNG cargo were stuck on the Atlantic. Moreover, the development of renewable energy infrastructures would increase clean energy production and advance the de-carbonization of Morocco’s energy mix. This would, of course, have a positive impact on the global energy transition towards a greener future.

Most importantly, renewable energies could be a great opportunity for the development of Western Sahara. Moroccan officials have confirmed that the construction of these infrastructures will guarantee power supplies to the Sahrawi community. The complete electrification of the region could mean a significant improvement in health care and education, as (clean) energy could reach schools and hospitals without intermittence. Furthermore, renewable energy projects could have countless positive effects on businesses and the economy by attracting foreign investments (Siemens and Enel Green Power are already involved in the area).

Admittedly, the development of Western Sahara would mostly benefit inhabitants of Moroccan origin, whose settlement in the period that followed the 1975 Green March was largely incentivized by the government and who now compose the majority of Western Sahara’s population. Indeed, it would only marginally improve the lives of the Sahrawi people, who largely live in refugee camps at the border with Algeria, or in any case beyond the 2700km sand wall that Morocco has built to circumscribe the area it controls (over 80%). The Sahrawi people will only be able to benefit from their own natural resources once they are included in the development process; but in order to be included, they will need to accept Morocco’s conditions.

Morocco’s solution to the dispute has always remained the same. After a few years of “charm diplomacy” and investments throughout Africa, it rejoined the African Union last year with the intention to promote its plan, under which Western Sahara would become an autonomous region within the Kingdom of Morocco. Contrary to the past, some African states are now supporting (or at least not openly opposing) Rabat’s claim to the territory.

In some ways, this situation reflects the never-ending dilemma between reality and legality. A best-case scenario would see the Sahrawi people in possession of their own resources and the simultaneous development of the region. However, the reality is different. The protests of the Sahrawi people, who see Morocco’s presence in Western Sahara as an occupation and plundering of their land, have been ineffective. Indeed, the behaviour of the African Union shows they are becoming even feebler than in the past. The dispute has remained unresolved for decades, and no referendum is likely to take place anytime soon. The international community is unwilling or incapable of putting pressure on Morocco, which is likely to continue, undisturbed, to make use of the region’s natural resources. As things stand, Morocco finds itself in a position of power.

Therefore, even if Morocco’s behaviour is illegal, accepting its proposal of creating an autonomous region may be a plausible option for the Sahrawi people. They will have to renounce their independence claims but, by being an actor in the development process the region is currently undergoing thanks to its renewables potential, they will have the occasion to decisively improve their living conditions. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice between (sustainable) development and self-determination. It is no easy call, but one that Africa’s last colony should at least begin to contemplate.

Article written by Federico Mascolo



[1] PAREMA, 2016. Renewable energy and energy efficiency in Morocco http://dkti-maroc.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/61/2016/11/PAREMA_sme-re-ee-morocco.pdf
[2] Western Sahara Resource Watch, 2016. Powering the Plunder: What Morocco and Siemens are hiding at COP22, 2 November, http://wsrw.org/a105x3614  


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