At the foot of the High Atlas mountain chain in Morocco the Ouarzazate semi-desert region is drying out. Morocco is among the world’s most water-stressed countries. At 600 cubic metres (21,200 cubic feet) of water annually per capita per year, the country is already well below the water scarcity threshold of 1,700 cubic metres (60,000 cubic feet), according to the World Health Organization.
As in the rest of North Africa, global warming is already showing its effects and badly affecting agriculture. In the context of drought, Moroccan farmers point the finger at the mismanagement of remaining water resources, which have been diverted from their natural course to be set aside for expanding industries.
Three industries in southeastern Morocco consume the most water: mining companies, agricultural monocultures, and the world’s largest solar power plant, Noor, generating thermal energy through an evaporation process.
“Local communities suffer from the effects of the climate crisis and do not even benefit from these large projects,” says Jamal Saddoq, a representative of Attac Morocco, one of the few associations working on the consequences of the extractive industry in the southeast. “We live next to gold, silver, lead and cobalt mines, but we ended up believing that our region is just marginalised and poor.”
Companies in Morocco produce three million tonnes of minerals per year. Managem group, a Moroccan company operating in the extraction of precious metals and cobalt, owns the main sites in the region. The Imider mine is the largest in Africa, from where precious minerals such as silver leaves for Gulf and European countries. The mining industry needs water to recover precious metals from ore. Demonstrators have been calling for an equitable distribution of resources, including water.
“We have been protesting since the 1980s, but little has changed except that groundwater is running out. The company is still pumping water, digging wells deeper and deeper,” says one anti-mine activist, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid repercussions from the authorities. “That’s why in 2011 we decided to block the pipeline connecting the mine to its water tank.”
In June 2022, an agreement between the Managem company and the Renault Group was signed to extract 5,000 tonnes of cobalt sulfate for electric car batteries for seven years starting from 2025. How much water will this "green" project cost?
"...Despite green policies, these economic activities are based on the same extractivist model,” Saddoq of the Attac Association points out.
In operation since 2016, the Noor plant is the world’s largest thermodynamic solar complex. Locals say water is being diverted for the wet cooling phase at the facility. Water from the valleys around Ouarzazate is collected in the al-Mansour Eddahbi dam which is below 12 percent of its current capacity. The average rainfall this season was at its lowest level in more than 40 years.
“Now all the water of our Dades river is directed to the dam, while we need it to penetrate our water table,” says Rochdi, a farmer from Kalaat MGouna. “The remaining water is pumped for intensive agriculture.”
Instead of being equally redistributed among the population, 85 percent of national water consumption is swallowed by intensive agriculture, mostly for market produce such as watermelon and avocado, and arboriculture, including almonds and citrus fruit. These crops are water-intensive and mostly intended for export, at the expense of local subsistence farming. South Ouarzazate, which is already under stress from mining activities, has become a leading destination for large investments in watermelon production. Since 2008, the surface allocated to watermelon crops has multiplied 10-fold, jeopardising local water resources for small-scale farmers and villagers.
Yousef, a farmer from Kalaat MGouna, explains “Water access is becoming a matter of public order, as we only survive thanks to our immigrants, who send some money back home,” the farmer adds. Little did he know that irrigating his crops would become an impossible task.
For his part, Yousef aims to propose a counter-agricultural model through his agroecological cooperative farm experimenting with drip irrigation.
“No policy will be effective in preserving oases without a sustainable agriculture based on soil fertility rather than on intensive irrigation,” he says. “Our valley is in great danger. Without water we are at the tipping point of a major collapse”.
‘Preserving oases’: The fight for water by Morocco farmers | Climate Crisis News | Al Jazeera