Drought threatens Morocco's ancient oases

Long a buffer against desertification, they have gone through cycles of drought in recent decades and are "threatened with extinction.
Monday 17/02/2020
A man walks over a dried irrigation canal in Morocco's rural oasis of Skoura, January 27. (AFP)
Danger of desertification. A man walks over a dried irrigation canal in Morocco's rural oasis of Skoura, January 27. (AFP)

Dead palm trees lie on dry, yellowish earth near an abandoned adobe house in Morocco's arid south-east, as drought threatens ancient oases.

"I grew up in this oasis and I have seen it shrink," says 53-year-old Mohamed El Houkari, who lives in Skoura, a rural oasis area of around 40 sq.km.

For centuries, Morocco's oases have been home to human settlements, agriculture and cultural heritage, thanks to trans-Saharan trade caravan routes. Long a buffer against desertification, they have gone through cycles of drought in recent decades and are "threatened with extinction, Greenpeace warned, because of high temperatures.

In most of the Skoura oasis, the ground is dry and cracked. Until the 1980s, "pomegranate and apple trees flourished here," said Houkari, who is also part of a local development NGO. Now, only hardy olive trees grow in the shadow of the palms.

The Skoura region used to attract farmers. These days, most young people work elsewhere, though some stay for the developing tourism sector.

"I am ready to sell my land but there is nobody to buy it. Everyone has left," said Ahmed, a farmer.

The man in his 50s said he settled in Skoura with his family 25 years ago, "when the area was green and there was plenty of water but the drought has destroyed everything."

Electrician Abdeljalil spends most of his time between Marrakech and Agadir. "Our life isn't here anymore," the 37-year-old said.

He said the use of electric pumps contributed to the overexploitation of the groundwater. Residents said they now need to dig down more than 40 metres to find water, compared with 7-10 metres in the 1980s.

Houkari lamented the abandonment of traditional methods -- such as the "khatarat" canal irrigation system -- that allowed water to be distributed "economically and rationally."

Using the pumps is costly, Ahmed said.

Morocco's high level of water stress doesn't just affect life in the oases. In 2017, protests took place in the semi-desert southern town of Zagora against repeated water cuts. This year, Morocco introduced a $12 billion national programme for the supply of potable and irrigation water.

Under a separate initiative, "we set ourselves the goal of mobilising 1 billion cubic metres of water by the end of 2020," said Brahim Hafidi, director-general of the national agency for the development of oasis zones (ANDZOA), referring to efforts to build dams and rehabilitate irrigation canals.

Greenpeace said droughts have increased in frequency in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria and Algeria in recent decades, rising from once every five years to once every two years in Morocco.

"Oases rely on subterranean waters, which generally come from snow," noted Lahcen El Maimouni, a local academic. He said climate change had hurt the oases.

The Atlas Mountains, visible on the horizon from Skoura, are capped in white but the snow levels are not enough to sustain the dry beds of the wadis that cross the oasis and the effects of drought are visible along the rugged road that leads to Skoura.

To rehabilitate oasis areas, ANDZOA planted 3 million trees, Hafidi said.

Morocco has lost two-thirds of its 14 million palms in the last century, official figures indicate.

Houkari said saving the oases requires raising awareness of the risk of desertification. Palm trees have been removed and sold to villa owners, he added, with regret.

"The danger of the oases disappearing is very real," he said while standing near a dry irrigation canal.

(AFP)