Aquaculture in the Sahara: A Mirage in the Desert?

The Algerian population is growing rapidly, which will increase food and water demand, as well as put pressure on employment and development. In an effort to diversify its economy, the Algerian Government is promoting agriculture by offering cheap loans and concessions to farmers willing to start farms in the desert.

Fears related to climate change and population growth have sparked concern about food security and the future availability of fish as a source of protein.

Those fears have led to an increased interest in aquaculture. There are, however, several concerns surrounding aquaculture, including: the unsustainable use of groundwater, the adverse impacts of climate change and social attitudes that limit the demand for farmed fish. To reach its full potential, several measures must be considered for the successful governance of aquaculture practices. If successful, aquaculture could prove to be a way for countries to secure access to a stable source of protein for years to come.


The North African country of Algeria is attempting to diversify its oil-based economy by developing its agricultural sector. The government promotes agriculture by offering cheap loans and concessions to Algerians willing to start farms in the desert. There are, in fact, other underlying motives to this economic diversification. The United Nations has forecast that the Algerian population will rise by 25 per cent, to approximately 50 million people, by 2030. The rapid growth in population will increase demand for food, water and employment. Therefore, economic diversification is needed to reduce these pressures through increased domestic agricultural production and the creation of jobs.

Algeria currently gets its fish supply from the Mediterranean Sea, but adverse impacts from climate change, unsustainable fishing practices and pollution, could be detrimental to its supply. The development of aquaculture in the desert might seem counterintuitive, but if it is successful, the growth of this sector will nearly double Algeria’s annual fish production by 2022.

For farmers, aquaculture is mostly self-sufficient and has several positive by-products. Tapping into groundwater supplies allows farmers to irrigate crops as well as hydrate and feed livestock, bringing life into a somewhat lifeless environment. The waste from the livestock and crops can then be made into feed for the fish, making the farming of fish and other water-based organisms highly sustainable. The production and sale of farmed fish then creates an additional income avenue for the farmers.

The development of Saharan aquaculture is not completely straight forward; there are some apprehensions about the establishment of the industry. A heavy reliance on groundwater in the region, coupled with the creation of an aquaculture industry, could prove harmful to water security not only for Algeria, but for all other North African countries that share the same groundwater resources. Unsustainable management and the need to share the scarce resource could lead to social tension. The impacts of climate change could also impede the successful adoption of aquaculture. According to De Silve and Soto’s paper on climate change and aquaculture, sea level and temperature rise, changes in rain patterns, extreme climatic events and water stress, are the main elements of climate change that could affect aquaculture production. There are also several social barriers that inhibit the demand for farmed fish. There is a perception that people prefer to consume fish from the sea, which reduces demand for farmed desert fish. As the available supplies of oceanic fish diminish, it is foreseeable that people’s perception and habits will be forced to change.

Regardless of the concerns, aquaculture is becoming more common. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), aquaculture is one of the fastest growing food producing sectors. Taha Hammouche, director-general for fisheries at Algeria’s agriculture ministry, said that approximately 13,000 farmers have expressed an interest in aquaculture projects.

The success of aquaculture in the foreseeable future, however, is highly dependent on the ability of governments to successfully manage the sector. Effective governance is essential to the continual growth and achievement of aquaculture’s potential. The regulation of natural resources consumed in aquaculture production, particularly groundwater, is vital to ensure that the industry is sustainably managed. There is also the need for effective control of fish health management to mitigate the impact of disease.

If Algeria can innovate and implement models that touch on the governance factors above, the potential of its aquaculture sector will not be constrained. Meeting this potential will put the country in good standing as its population grows, demands for protein increase and development continues. If the Algerian aquaculture industry is successful, there is no reason why other countries, that are facing similar stresses, cannot follow in its footsteps to improve their food supply in times of growing demand.

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