Only a few words carry as much poetic imagery as the term “oasis”. As a garden in the desert, it symbolizes lush amongst aridity, life amidst emptiness. It is a place where gazelles and goats run their way through a fertile valley made of lavish palm trees reflecting themselves in shimmering waters, where nomad tribes come to rest and replenish their food and water supplies before continuing their journey through the dunes of Northern Africa. It is a place for brief encounters and prosperous trade, a place where stories are shared and promesses are made.
The moving border of the Sahara
From a fertile valley to a dry desert
A native of M’hamid El Ghizlane – an oasis town facing the dunes of the Moroccan Sahara –, Ali remembers with nostalgia this picture-perfect environment. He grew up as a nomad and a shepherd, spending a vast amount of time wandering the beautiful emptiness of the neighbouring Sahara. He easily navigates in this peculiar environment, which he loves dearly. Just like a white page, the desert is a land where the imagination can run completely free. Yet, he can’t help but worry about the future of the oasis. In the last twenty years, the Sahara has kept coming closer to the village – gaining about one kilometre according to Ali –, pushing away its inhabitants and threatening their livelihoods.
A landscape of desolation
Today, the waving horizon of sandy dunes has replaced the infinite silhouettes of date-palms and fruit trees. The old and the new M’hamid face each other on the banks of the Drâa, connected by a bridge that now crosses over sand, not water. In both sides of the dry river, traditional kasbahs are half-buried in the burning sand. Nature seems to be thoroughly fighting to claim back its territory as it has become hostile – almost vengeful – over the years. Sand storms are frequent, filling in-house patios with orange dunes and turning agricultural parcels into dry land. Once a land of wildlife – M’hamid El Ghizlane is also called “the gazelles plain” –, the surrounding landscape is now consistently arid. The local dam is no longer active, for there is no water to retain anymore. The lakes have dried up, leaving a hint of their past existence in the form of strange patterns covering the dehydrated soil. What’s to blame? Global warming? As convenient and trending as this answer would be, the truth lies elsewhere.
When water policies make the land drier: the impact of clean energy on desertification
The region started to experience droughts with the construction of the El Manson Eddahbi dam in the early 1970s. Located about twenty kilometres away from Ouarzazate, at the upstream section of the Drâa river, it retains about 560 millions of meter cubes of water thanks to its ambitious system of reservoirs. Its primary goals were to generate hydraulic electricity and regulate the distribution of water throughout the Drâa Valley so that every village could get the water it needed in order to cultivate its land. As clever as the idea seems, the reality has not met the expectations. Being the last oasis of the valley, M’hamid El Ghizlane saw its amount of water severely decline ever since the dam has been functioning. The canals, once irrigating a vast acreage, now remain dry most of the time. Water is timidly flowing for a few days only three to four times a year, depending on the quantity of rain that fell over the Atlas. Far from covering the farming needs of the village, this regulation has led to food insecurity in the area. A situation that is made worse by Moroccan customary law, which states that the upstream always prevails over the downstream.
Economic development as a factor of desertification
Alphabetisation and rural exodus
The droughts that have experienced the locals did result in a more challenging work environment for peasants. But it doesn’t entirely explain why so many parcels have been abandoned. The land is still fertile, and a few farms successfully cultivate crops in M’hamid. Most of the fields that are now dry and covered in sand are equipped with wells that are connected to potable water. Yet, no one even considers using them anymore. Like anywhere else in the world, an increasing alphabetisation rate has encouraged rural exodus in Morocco. People leave the land of their ancestors seeking job opportunities in the ever-growing cities, fleeing drought and extreme heat or wishing to give their children a better education. A disappearing oasis at the doors of the Sahara cannot compete with the dynamism of modern metropolises like Marrakech or Casablanca.
The profitable business of unsustainable agriculture
The remaining peasants of M’hamid El Ghizlane play a crucial role in stopping the progression of the desert. Cultivating the land is the best way to prevent desertification, but it requires an investment not everyone can afford. Modern agricultural techniques come with higher costs as the wells now work with an electric pump or solar panels. In the neighbouring region of Zagora, farmers have found a way to make their land quite profitable. They benefit from the worldwide fame of Zagora watermelons, a species that’s widely appreciated for its sweet and refreshing taste. The demand is so high that almost every farmer switched their crops to watermelons, leading to an all-year-round monoculture that’s extremely water-demanding, as each watermelon requires more than a ton of water to fully grow. This intensive and unsustainable agricultural model is emptying the groundwaters, when Morocco is already planned to become a “chronically water-stressed” country by 2020 according to the World Bank.
Over the last decades, the Sahara has significantly gained ground in the Drâa Valley. The ongoing desertification has been induced by human activities – political decisions, social development and economic growth – and made worse by climatic dynamics: the more arid a piece of land is, the less rain it is likely to receive. As water management becomes a very sensitive topic in the MENA region and in Morocco, both international and local policies will have to address the issue. Building smaller, locally managed dams to collect rainwater, helping aspiring farmers to buy modern agricultural equipment such as solar panels and regulating single-crop farming are only a few examples of bottom-up approaches that are definitely worth digging into. After all, if men are the cause of desertification, they should be able to revert the tendency. ■