Dades Valley, Morocco – At the foot of the High Atlas mountain range in southeastern Morocco, each village is named after the river that used to flow through it. But today dry palm trees surround empty riverbeds and bridges only cross stones that lie beneath.
“When I was a kid, I swam in this river. There was an incredible variety of fish. Today, half a century later, my wadi [valley] is completely dry,” says Yousef, a farmer from Kalaat MGouna, east of the gateway city of Ouarzazate.
Yousef, a retired migrant worker living in France, returned to his native village to grow olive, almond and pomegranate trees. Little did he know that irrigating his crops would become an impossible task.
The semi-desert region of Ouarzazate is drying up. As in the rest of North Africa, global warming is already showing its effects and affecting agriculture. In the context of the drought, Moroccan farmers are pointing the finger at the mismanagement of the remaining water resources, which have been diverted from their natural course to be reserved for expanding industries.
Three industries in south-east Morocco use the most water: mining companies, agricultural monocultures and the world’s largest solar power plant, Noor, which generates thermal energy through an evaporation process. Water from the valleys around Ouarzazate is collected in the Al Mansour Eddahbi Dam, which has less than 12 percent of its current capacity.
North Africa’s green transition
“Morocco is at the forefront in Africa when it comes to fighting the climate crisis and environmental degradation,” said European Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans at the signing of the EU-Morocco Green Partnership a few weeks ago before the start of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
Environmental groups in the region have criticized the resource’s centralized and extractive resource management.
“Local communities are suffering the effects of the climate crisis and are not even benefiting from these large-scale projects,” says Jamal Saddoq, a representative from Attac Morocco, one of the few associations dealing with the consequences of the extractive industry in the south-east.
“We live next to gold, silver, lead and cobalt mines, but we ended up believing that our region is marginalized and poor.”
Along the roads through the desert it is not uncommon to see a cloud of white smoke – a sign of mining activity. Excluding phosphates, about 40 percent of Morocco’s mining licenses are in the Drâa-Tafilalet region.
According to a recent interview with Energy Transition and Sustainable Development Minister Leila Benali, companies in Morocco produce three million tons of minerals a year. The Managem Group, a Moroccan company active in the extraction of precious metals and cobalt, owns the main sites in the region.
Such is the case of the Imider mine, the largest in Africa, from which valuable minerals such as silver are extracted for Gulf and European countries.
“We’ve been protesting since the 1980s, but little has changed except that groundwater is running low. The company is still pumping water, digging wells deeper and deeper,” said an anti-mine activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid backlash from authorities.
“So in 2011 we decided to close the pipeline that connects the mine to its water tank.”
As explained on the company’s own website, the mining industry needs water to extract precious metals from ores.
Protesters are demanding a fair distribution of resources, including water. “We’ve had some successes, but not what we expected. About 50 young people have been hired and some development projects have been launched,” the activist said.
Managem did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for an interview. In line with the company’s environmental commitments, “we are taking actions to ensure the future of water resources for our operations, for our neighboring communities, and for our environment as a whole.”
In June 2022, an agreement was signed between the company and the Renault Group to extract 5,000 tons of cobalt sulphate for electric car batteries over seven years, starting in 2025. The goal is to “ensure supply chain traceability and reduce environmental impact.”
“How much water will this green project cost?” asks the activist.
Despite the arrest of dozens of anti-mine activists, protests continue in the region as the drought worsens. The last water demonstrations in southeastern Morocco took place in the Zagora area in early October.
“The protests against mining groups have been joined by protests against the rise of monocultures and the Noor solar power plant. Despite green politics, these economic activities are based on the same extractivist model,” stresses Saddoq of the Attac Association.
The Noor facility has been in operation since 2016 and is the world’s largest thermodynamic solar complex. Locals say water is diverted for the wet cooling phase at the facility.
“Now all the water from our Dades River is being diverted to the dam while we need it to infiltrate our water table,” says Rochdi, a farmer from Kalaat MGouna. “The remaining water is pumped out for intensive farming.”
Average rainfall this season was at its lowest in more than 40 years, according to authorities.
“Morocco is one of the most arid countries in the world,” according to a report by the World Bank. With 600 cubic meters of water per capita per year, the country is already well below the water scarcity threshold of 1,700 cubic meters (60,000 cubic feet), according to the World Health Organization.
Rather than being evenly redistributed among the population, 85 percent of the nation’s water use is gobbled up by intensive farming, mostly for market produce like watermelons and avocados, and arboriculture, including almonds and citrus. These crops are water intensive and mostly destined for export at the expense of local subsistence agriculture.
The Kingdom’s decisions regarding agricultural policy were set in stone in 2008 by the Green Morocco Plan, a 10-year strategy aimed at making the agricultural sector a priority for the country’s socio-economic development. The keywords were modernization, intensification, crop diversification and land liberalization.
Nizar Baraka, Morocco’s Minister of Water and Equipment, has called for “reducing water losses in the transport and distribution networks” and “curbing the demand for irrigation water”.
Baraka also promoted “investment in modernizing agriculture as an essential means of ensuring and developing water and food security.”
drop by drop
In recent years, the Skoura region in southern Ouarzazate, already heavily impacted by mining activities, has emerged as a leading destination for large investments in watermelon production. Since 2008, the area earmarked for watermelon cultivation has increased tenfold, threatening local water resources for small farmers and villagers.
In Zagora, a small town with 30,000 inhabitants, water is distributed drop by drop for a few hours a day.
“People flee from our valley to the city or often look for opportunities abroad,” says Yousef.
“Access to water becomes a public policy issue as we only survive thanks to our immigrants sending some money home,” the farmer adds.
For his part, Yousef wants to propose an anti-agriculture model through his agroecological cooperative farm experimenting with drip irrigation.
“Without sustainable agriculture, based on soil fertility rather than intensive irrigation, no oasis conservation policy will be effective,” he says. “Our valley is in great danger. Without water we are at the tipping point of a major collapse.”