Algeria is still renowned as a hub for hydrocarbons and building aggregates in North Africa,  writes Dr Nicolaas C Steenkamp.

Since gaining independence from France, Algeria has been struggling to some extent to keep up with mining trends, especially diversification into hard rock mining. The desert climate has also not been conducive to exploration in the region and the mining sector is still dominated by oil and aggregate mining.

Geographical zones

Algeria has three distinct geographical zones. The northern most is the Mediterranean Coast, which is a narrow strip along the northern edge, bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This area features fertile coastal plains backed by the Atlas Mountains. The zone enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and mild, rainy winters. The High Plateaus (Hauts Plateaux) is a vast plateau region south of the Atlas Mountains. This semi-arid zone experiences hotter summers and cooler winters with some freezing nights. The majority of the land surface is covered by the Sahara Desert, which  occupies roughly 80% of Algeria’s land area – the Sahara dominates the south. This immense desert is characterised by scorching hot days, with temperatures exceeding 50°C in summer. Winters are milder with significant variations between daytime and evening temperatures.

 

Mineral wealth

Algeria boasts a wealth of mineral resources, though hydrocarbons, oil and natural gas, reign supreme in its mining industry. The Algerian mining landscape is a blend of public and private participation, with dominance varying across mineral types.

The sector is dominantly held by the public sector, with large and medium-sized state-owned enterprises controlling a significant portion of the mining for barite, bentonite, cement, natural gas, petroleum and phosphate rock. The private sector presence, on the other hand, holds sway in the extraction of aggregates, common clay, gypsum and sand. Lastly, there are a number of Joint Ventures (JV) in specific sectors, such as gold, helium (Helios S.p.A.) and steel (Mittal Steel Annaba S.p.A.) that witness collaboration between private and state-owned entities.

As of 2006, Algeria boasted roughly 950 active non-fuel mineral operations. A staggering 70% of these were dedicated to aggregates, construction sand or crushed stone.

 

Geological setting

Algeria’s geology can be subdivided into three contrasting tectono-stratigraphic domains, namely the West African Craton that consists of a Precambrian granitised basement and its surrounding Neoproterozoic mobile belts, forming the larger central, southern and western part of the country. The second is the eastern limit of the West African Craton borders to the Tuareg shield, which comprises the Hoggar region and its southwestern and southeastern prolongations, the Adrar des Iforas and the Aïr, respectively. This region has been mostly affected by the Pan-African tectonothermal event. In the north, orginating from Tangier in Morocco via northern Algeria to Tunis in Tunisia, a folded chain extends over the entire length of the Maghreb. This belt is part of the Alpine chain, with its features more resembling the Betic and Apenine segments of the Alpine unit. The Algerian part of this belt is also known as the Tellian chain.

 

Mineral deposits and production

While hydrocarbons dominate Algeria’s mineral wealth, various other resources contribute to the industry. The main commodity is iron ore, as Algeria possesses extensive high-grade iron ore deposits, particularly at Ouenza (eastern border) and Gara Djebilet (near Tindouf). Open-cut mines at Ouenza feed the domestic steel industry with high-grade ore. Gara Djebilet holds vast reserves of medium-grade ore, with extraction plans ramping up.

Deposits of moderate-grade phosphate rock are found south of Tebessa (Djebel Onk). Around a third of this production supplies the Annaba fertiliser complex, with the remaining exported as raw material. Phosphate production witnessed a decline in the mid-1990s.

Non-ferrous metals are more scattered but hold economic significance. The El-Abed region near Tlemcen is the primary source for zinc and lead production in Algeria. Additionally, mercury ore is extracted at Azzaba. Interestingly, Algeria held a significant share (around 13%) of global helium production in 2006. This unique resource adds another dimension to the country’s mineral wealth.

Production figures for specific minerals are challenging to obtain due to fluctuating market conditions and data not being published regularly. However, it is indicated that Algeria’s hydrocarbon production was substantial, accounting for roughly 2.9% of global natural gas output and 2.2% of global crude oil output. The country held significant reserves, with estimates suggesting 21% of identified global helium resources, 2.5% of global natural gas reserves, and 1% of global crude oil reserves.

 

Recent developments and future outlook

Algeria has started to recognise the potential of its diverse mineral resources beyond hydrocarbons to diversify its economy. In the past couple of years there have been several large projects taking off. The Gara Djebilet Iron Ore Project – a revival of the large-scale project in 2022 signifies a renewed focus on exploiting Algeria’s vast iron ore reserves. The long-term goal is to extract tens of millions of tonnes per year, catering to domestic steel production needs.

Algeria is exploring possibilities to tap into previously unexploited resources like gold, copper and zinc. This aligns with the national strategy to diversify the mining sector and reduce dependence on hydrocarbons. The Algerian government acknowledges the need for modernisation and investment in the mining sector. This could involve upgrading infrastructure, adopting more sustainable mining practices and attracting foreign investment through favourable policies.

The Algerian mining sector does however also face some challenges. It has and remains affected by the global commodity prices cycles. The country’s mining industry has shown itself to be highly susceptible to fluctuations in global commodity prices. This can impact revenue generation and project viability. As with most developing countries, it faces the reality of infrastructure limitations. Algeria’s mining regions, particularly in the Sahara, often lack well-developed infrastructure, hindering efficient extraction and transportation of minerals.

Environmental considerations are gaining importance. Sustainable mining practices that minimise environmental impact will be crucial for the industry’s long-term social license to operate and to align with new global ESG standards.

Conclusion

Algeria’s mining industry presents a fascinating mix of established dominance in hydrocarbons and an emerging focus on diversifying its mineral resource base. While challenges exist, the country’s vast mineral wealth holds immense potential to contribute to its economic growth and development. Continued government efforts towards modernisation, infrastructure development and attracting foreign investment will be instrumental in unlocking this potential. As Algeria navigates the global commodity market and prioritises sustainable practices, the future of its mining industry promises to expand. 

Dr Nicolaas C Steenkamp is an independent consultant, specialising in geological, geotechnical and geometallurgical projects and mining project management. He has over two decades of industry experience with global exposure. (ncs.contract@gmail.com)