The Making of a Water Crisis

The Making of a Water Crisis

How a colonial dream ran Morocco dry.

Residents using a restored khettara well in southern Morocco (Christopher Rose / Flickr)

Last fall, the residents of Zagora, a Moroccan city on the edge of the Sahara, decided they were fed up with the watermelons. Plagued for years by water shortages, they pointed a finger at the prosperous, export-oriented fruit farms outside the city for hogging their wells. In what became known as the “thirst protests,” people from throughout the region rallied in Zagora to decry the shortages. They were met by police, who cordoned off the city, broke up the crowd, and arrested twenty-three of the demonstrators. “Are we really human beings,” asked one activist, “if we’re being treated this way?”

The problems facing the residents of Zagora are by no means limited to the Sahara. Water scarcity is an escalating crisis around the globe, and Morocco’s regional neighbors are among the worst affected. The Middle East and North Africa region is the most water-scarce in the world, with Turkey the only country not experiencing a deficit. Yemen, already beset by famine and Saudi Arabian airstrikes, will see its capital run out of water within a decade, and it’s become apparent that waning rainfall pushed Iraqi farmers to join ISIS. Sub-Saharan Africa is increasingly vulnerable as well: although South Africa’s Cape Town has postponed the dreaded Day Zero—the day when it would be forced to turn off the taps, originally scheduled for this past April—around 500 children die every day in the greater region from diseases caused by poor water quality and insufficient supply.

These deaths are one grim facet of a problem that is global in scope—Australia, Mexico, and the southwestern United States are also projected to face severe water stress in the coming decades—and only promises to grow as climate change continues. In already arid regions like North Africa, rising temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of droughts; rainfall is expected to decrease by at least 20 percent by the end of the century.

In the face of all this gloom, Morocco is optimistic. It’s just been reelected to head the African Water Association and has unveiled “Water for Africa,” an ambitious plan to ensure water security throughout the continent. The kingdom’s “very well-developed experience in the field of water management has made Morocco a model in comparison with other Arab and African countries,” explained Charafat Afilal, Morocco’s state secretary in charge of water. Afilal assured the local politics magazine TelQuel last October that the outrage in Zagora had been misplaced. The shortages were nothing more than the temporary result of recent droughts, she explained. “In reality,” Afilal said, “we are not witnessing a widespread water crisis.”

Why, then, was the kingdom so quick to crack down on the demonstrations in Zagora, putting fourteen protesters in prison? By laying the blame solely on droughts, the government obscures a key part of the picture, says Mohammed Behnassi, a professor of environmental and human security politics at Ibn Zohr University of Agadir in western Morocco. Unless this changes, he warns, “Morocco may profoundly suffer.”

The uncomfortable reality is that, Afilal’s confidence notwithstanding, Morocco too is running out of water. Its available resources have fallen by 71 percent since 1980, threatening to drop below the U.N.’s threshold for “absolute water scarcity” by 2020. Receding rains likely sparked the recent shortages, but the source of Morocco’s water woes runs much deeper.

They go back, in short, to the watermelons, and other cash crops. Nearly 90 percent of water withdrawals in Morocco are made by its agriculture industry, which grows citrus fruits, tomatoes, and other produce for export. The bulk of this goes to Europe, for which Morocco is a major supplier: among non-EU countries, only the United States, Turkey, and South Africa export more fruits and vegetables to the continent. Accounting for 15 percent of the Moroccan GDP, agriculture is a mainstay of the kingdom’s economy. But more than that, it’s a pillar of stability, employing 39 percent of Moroccans and 80 percent of the rural population. In a country seeing growing economic unrest, where nearly half of those in rural areas live in “extreme poverty,” farming remains a cornerstone of employment.

This leaves the kingdom in a bind. To make up for increasing droughts, it’s pumping out its groundwater to keep its populace working and its economy rolling. But eventually the aquifers will dry up. “Intensive agriculture as currently practiced is not sustainable,” warns Behnassi.

How did things get this bad? While the situation may seem like a result of shortsighted planning, in many ways it’s anything but. Today’s Morocco—its scarce arable land covered with water-intensive, labor-heavy commercial farms—is the realization of a century-old French colonial dream.


Ever since France began carving out its influence in Morocco at the turn of the twentieth century, its agricultural policy there mixed grandiose ambitions of colonial subjugation with scientific ineptitude. French ecologists had long imagined North Africa as the lost “Granary of Rome,” whose rich soil had supplied wheat and other cereals for most of the Roman empire. As the story went, this cornucopia had been laid waste by incompetent Arab invaders in the eighth century. “The [Arab] native sought to secure by force or ruse what his neighbor had produced, instead of producing for himself,” wrote two French historians at the time.

France occupied Morocco in 1912 in part to access its fertile soils, a mission made urgent after the First World War sparked a domestic wheat crisis. The legend of the Granary of Rome served as justification for colonization. French colonial officials—among them academics, engineers, and military officers—saw the French people as the true descendants of the Roman Empire. For them, colonizing Morocco and appropriating its resources wasn’t just a profitable enterprise; it was a righteous mission to restore Roman civilization to the Maghreb. “In taking land from the natives,” wrote a colonial officer, “we are assisting them.”

This “assistance”—meticulously chronicled in Will Swearingen’s Moroccan Mirages: Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1912-1986—consisted of a massive restructuring of the country’s agricultural system. For centuries, farmers had extracted groundwater using a gravity-powered system of wells and tunnels, called khettara. Unlike under the European model, which doles out water rights in quantities under written contacts, Moroccan growers relied on oral agreements and took turns throughout the week to direct all the water from a shared canal to their fields. This system was flexible; farmers adjusted their plot sizes to the amount of available water.

While indigenous farming techniques satisfied Morocco’s domestic food needs, foreign consumption demanded something more. After stealing the best land, French colonists built hydroelectric dams, motor-pumped wells, and poured concrete irrigation canals, seeking to harness the country’s full agricultural potential.

Despite their sizable investments, France soon found that its new colony’s wheat output barely matched the metropole’s own. Poor harvest after poor harvest revealed that the Granary of Rome had been a myth, extrapolated by eager historians cherry-picking from ancient texts. Moroccan farmers, it turned out, had been making the best of what the soil afforded.

But France had already brought hundreds of thousands of settlers to Morocco with the promise of prosperous farming, and now the population of unemployed Moroccans, dispossessed of their land, was growing. To get out of this mess, the French government decided that the granary would become an orchard. Adopting farming techniques that had recently seen success in California—where massive irrigation projects had made its similarly arid land an agricultural powerhouse—the French switched out cereals for fruit and vegetables. But these required more labor, more land, and more water. Dams, wells, and grand promises were piled on: vast swaths of land would be irrigated, and “not a drop” of Morocco water would enter the sea.

France’s vision of a comprehensively irrigated, export-oriented agricultural system would survive after independence not only intact, but intensified. Facing resistance from urban democratic movements, the Moroccan king, Hassan II, secured his rule by siding with the rural indigenous elite. To win their support, he gave them the best of the newly vacated farmland. Moroccan peasants, despite their country’s new freedom, returned to their fields mostly as hired laborers.

On the eve of independence, vegetables and citrus fruits had made up 20 percent of Morocco’s foreign revenue, and the portion would only grow as World Bank loans and special trade agreements with France pushed Hassan II to expand commercial farming. Traditional farms and khettara networks were in turn neglected. The colonial model remained in place—agriculture would continue to be dominated by resource-intensive cash crops—but the owners were now Moroccan.


Over the past century, Morocco’s water supply has been piped into the global economy. But even as the country is sucked dry, the gains are not evenly distributed. “A wealthy local minority enjoys a surplus of profits,” explains the activist collective Attac Maroc. The ministry of agriculture, led by Aziz Akhannouch, the richest man in Morocco, chases foreign investment, public-private partnerships, and World Bank and IMF loans, which are promised to improve rural economic conditions but in effect just intensify agricultural production with little benefit to small-scale farmers. Maximizing mechanized irrigation remains the goal, so that more high-value crops can be sold to Europe by Moroccan agribusinesses.

This dynamic isn’t exclusive to Morocco, nor to formerly colonized countries. California’s agriculture industry, which inspired French colonial agronomists, has helped make the state the world’s fifth largest economy and also threatens to deplete its water supply within the next few decades. But as things stand now, Morocco may not even have that long.

The kingdom has promised to spend $20 billion over the next twelve years to secure its water resources. Measures already underway include more dams, a number of wastewater treatment plants (primarily to irrigate golf courses), and the world’s largest seawater desalination plant. The agriculture ministry has also encouraged farmers to buy drip irrigation equipment, offering subsidies of nearly 100 percent. This is said to waste considerably less water, but most beneficiaries, typically large landowners, take it as an opportunity to expand their farms and switch over to more water-intensive crops.

It’s still unclear if these measures will ultimately make up for Morocco’s water losses, and Attac Maroc says their “exorbitant costs” will only increase the country’s reliance on foreign loans. Barring drastic reforms to Morocco’s agricultural system, the government is likely to remain trapped in this cycle of spending on flashy infrastructure.

For those in power, that might not be such a bad thing. In the past decade, Morocco has positioned itself as an economic leader in Africa, becoming the biggest investor in the continent as well the biggest investee. Part of this strategy is the championing of its green innovations: hosting COP22, banning plastic bags (though they reappeared on the black market soon afterward), and building the world’s most concentrated solar power plant (on land bought out from villagers for pennies). Environmental initiatives like these are lucrative; a program like Water for Africa is just one more product for the Moroccan brand.

The kingdom’s biggest selling point is probably its stability; it’s the “Moroccan exception” in a region thought to be fraught with terrorism, economic uncertainty, and political unrest. To admit that this stability is built on a shaky, increasingly parched foundation would put its image, and the foreign investments that come with it, into jeopardy. Blaming droughts instead and throwing loans at the problem keeps Morocco competitive in the global economy.

There are alternatives. Scholars including Behnassi have provided a long list of suggestions for the government to reform Morocco’s water and agricultural system, including better support for small-scale farmers, equitable redistribution of water across regions, and a shift to less water-intensive agriculture. In this vein, a local NGO, Dar Si Hmad, has developed promising equipment to harvest water from fog, and there have been moves to restore disused khettara.

Attac Maroc’s aims are more ambitious. The group calls for “the restoration of national, democratic ownership over water management,” not by the public sector—“still a breeding ground of corruption and looting”—but through local collectives. Beyond that, they want a complete overhaul of Moroccan agriculture. “We demand to restore sovereignty over our food and the right to produce crops that meet our basic needs.”

As the group points out, the protests in Zagora are just the latest in over two decades of struggles against water mismanagement across cities like Tangier, Sefrou, and Casablanca. And in the mountain town of Imider, just north of Zagora, Morocco’s longest-running protest movement has maintained a permanent encampment since 2011, sitting in against the exploitation and pollution of its waters by a monarchy-funded mine. “Any attempt to elude our demands is a waste of time and effort,” writes the group on their website. Will the government heed their warning before the taps run dry?

Alexander Jusdanis is a journalist based in New Orleans. He was previously an editor at Morocco World News and a Fulbright researcher in Essaouira, Morocco. On Twitter he is @xanijusdani.