Everybody’s Gotta Have It: Morocco’s Sidi Ali Water Scandal

 /  April 5, 2024, 10:51 a.m.

Sidi Ali Water Bottles

Copyright Sidel

Sidi Ali Water, a prominent water bottle brand in Morocco

In 2023, the United Nations World Water Development Report stated that 2 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean and safe drinking water, and nearly half of the world’s population—3.6 billion people—lack proper water sanitation services. Water insecurity is one of the foremost issues of the century. Worldwide demand continues to rise at a rate of 1 percent until 2050.  What these statistics reveal is the access and privilege of nations, an act as simple as purchasing a water bottle is a simple routine in some countries, while other nations have begun to experience the rapidly approaching reality of water scarcity.

The issue of water scarcity is heightened for African countries. The World Health Organization reports 1 in 3 people in Africa face water scarcity. The 2050 deadline does not account for a report from the World Resources Institute, which notes the particular countries that will reach the crisis earlier. Morocco’s water stress will peak by 2040; ten years earlier than global estimates. The limited access to water compounds in Morocco’s areas of climate, corporation, and consumer access. The Moroccan Minister of Equipment and Water recorded a rainfall deficit of 70% in 2023-2024. Climate change and exploitation of natural resources would require many Global South nations like Morocco to install costly innovations in irrigation systems, agriculture, and energy production. The case of Morocco’s premier bottled water brand Sidi Ali demonstrates how even with natural obstacles in sight, corporations are another roadblock to the indispensable right to water for all.

The Sidi Alli brand is a notable brand of Moroccan bottled water—while in the country, I was consistently recommended the Sidi Ali brand as a reputable and safe drinking water source. In Morocco, still water comprises 85 percent of the total sales of bottled water, while sparkling water comprises 15 percent. A popular company Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès the seller of still water ‘Sidi Ali,’ dominating bottled water sales. The company was founded by Abdelkader Bensalah in 1933. The land rights to Ain Lalla Haya Springs were granted in a concession with the French Protectorate, the colonial government of France in Morocco (1912-1956). The concession stated that Bensalah had the right to exploit the Springs, the water source of Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmés. This marks the beginning of the privatization of the Oulmes plateau water sources, restricting free access to the lands and commodification of water and setting the stage for the importance of this bottled water source to the Moroccan population.

The production of Sidi Ali began in 1978. The Oulmes water source is unique since it is the only natural Moroccan mineral water, containing zero nitrates, which provides significant health benefits. However, in 2009, researchers found the groundwater of the Oulmes plateau was being intensively exploited for irrigation. The extraction of water severely outpaced the natural replenishment processes of the Ain Lalla Haya Springs. 

The depletion reached an all-time high in 2018 when the company raised the prices of Sidi Ali, stating their water resources “dried out.” In addition to the rising prices of Sidi Alli, two major corporations Afriquia Gaz, a major gas and fuel company, and Central Danone, a major dairy company also raised prices arbitrarily. At its peak, the price of a Sidi Alli bottle was higher in Morocco than in European countries. The national currency of Morocco, the Dirham, has a conversion ratio to the Euro of 1 Euro = .9 Dirham. The exchange rate was severe and deterred regular consumers from purchasing Sidi Alli. 

Unfortunately for Moroccans, Les Eaux Minérales d'Oulmés maintained a massive monopoly over water supply. The company captured 70 percent of the total market for bottled water, putting consumers in a position of sacrificing wages for clean water or turning to unsafe drinking water. 

In response, middle and lower-class consumers started a boycott advocating for equitable pricing and called the price hike a symbol of corporate and political greed. The boycott began as a social media campaign in direct retaliation to the price gouging of water by Sidi Alli and the price hikes of fuel and dairy. In a published survey by Reuters, 78 percent of Moroccan consumers supported the mineral water boycott. 

But the widespread support did not result in lower prices. Instead, the Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès led a campaign of bussing 80 people a week to Ain Lalla Haya Springs to prove to consumers its water sources were drying out. They claimed the price hike was fair and deferred blame to the government calling on officials to lower taxes. At the time, senior executives of the Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès were also pressuring public officials to curb the success of the boycott, by discouraging and suppressing protests, and advocated for the privatization of water sources. To further justify the price gouging, Sidi Alli executives argued that the water Oulmes could produce from the depleted spring would not be up to code under the provisions of the Ministry of Health. The boycott was also regarded as an insult to the Moroccan King given the Kingdom’s supreme rule of Moroccan government affairs. 

The boycott’s success is debatable. The movement was grassroots-led and youth-organized, which speaks to the mobility and organization of this population. However, the effects on corporations were clear. Just a few weeks into the campaign, Central Danone lost $150 million worth of products and in response lowered prices. The exact financial losses incurred by Sidi Alli and Afriquia Gaz were not made public and they ultimately decided to not lower prices.

The investigation into Sidi Ali water reveals the dangers of water commodification and monopolies. The trifecta held by Les Eaux Minérales d’Oulmès, Central Danone and Afriquia Gaz made it possible for these companies to exploit their consumers for reliable products and subsequently raised prices when sources became depleted and taxes rose. The Moroccan government left their citizens unprotected when price gouging occurred in water, fuel, and dairy products concurrently—forcing the public into a boycott of large-scale corporations that abused their influence of public officials and upheld profits over people.

There are international treaties ratified by the Moroccan government on the right to water, particularly the United Nations resolution on The Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. Article 7(d) calls upon states to “ensure existing legislative and policy framework is in line with the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and to repeal, amend or adapt it to meet human rights standards and principles.” In this case, Morocco did not utilize its state power to the fullest extent to ensure its citizens had access to affordable and safe drinking water; they did not pressure private companies not to price gouge. It was due to Moroccan citizens who used their right to protest. As the privatization of water persists worldwide, exacerbated by the simultaneous narrowing of the right to water, the growing issue of water scarcity requires continuous international monitoring and awareness to address water insecurity.

The image used in this article was created by and copyrighted by Sidel. It has been unaltered from its original form and can be accessed here.

Arsima Araya


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