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M’Zab Valley, Algeria

The Project

Considering the oasis as a fundamental model of sustainability (Fassi, 2017), the main focus of the T2GS project’s Algerian team is on the principle of circularity in the oases of the M’Zab Valley. We follow the flow of water to understand past, current and future practices of people. We analyze the practices that give substance to this principle of circularity, centering our attention to the circularity of (irrigation) water and the re-use of (non) treated wastewater.


We also analyze some of the current extractive practices, in line with ambitious development policies. Taken together, these different practices shed light on current agricultural and water dynamics, showing the scope for transformations to sustainability and the continued existence of this desert civilization. The Algerian team will also extend the analytical framework to other fields, such as energy, solid waste, livestock and agricultural associations.

Map representations of Algeria's M'Zab Valley and Ghardaïa

Moreover, the team will dialogue with the other T2SGS country teams around five main themes: public policies, institutions and collective action, mobility and migration of labor, alternative futures, and transformations to sustainability.

Regional views of the M'Zab Valley, its oases, and groundwater flow dynamics for North-Western Sahara Aquifer System.


The M’Zab valley in the northern part of the Algerian Sahara is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its urban ensembles in connection with oasis agriculture. The agricultural surface area was estimated at 58,508 hectares as of 2018. The region has a desert climate with cold winters and hot summers and an average annual precipitation of less than 100 mm while the annual evapotranspiration exceeds 2000 mm. Agriculture, and indeed life in this desert, is not possible without irrigation.

Traditional oases in Bériane, Algeria. (Credit: Amine Saidani - February 2019)

In the oases of Algeria’s M'Zab valley, farming systems are based on the principle of the circularity of water. In the ancient oases, there is an ingenious circular hydraulic system, which dates back to the 11th century and combines the use of surface and underground water resources. These systems were put in place by local communities and are adapted to the region’s extreme climatic conditions. The circularity of the system is enacted in irrigation infrastructure to store, transport and share water with an ancestral social organization for the distribution, allocation and storage of water.

Flood water is divided in many different parts through this division structure and taken to farm plots in Ghardaïa, Algeria. (Credit: Amine Saidani - February 2019)

The water circularity system consists of collecting and then diverting the water from rare flash floods to the ancient oases through channels (seguia). Part of the derived water is used to irrigate the date palm gardens on the basis of water rights. These rights are proportional to the number of palm trees of each family. The other part of the water is routed to wells, which serve to artificially recharge the water table. These hydraulic structures play a dual function. During of the intense and ephemeral flood periods, they allow to recharge of the water table. During the dry period, the water stored in the underground aquifer is then pumped for irrigation. Storing floodwater in underground aquifers allows to ensure the availability of groundwater for about 3 years.

Small canals in Béni Isguen, Algeria transporting groundwater crossing a wide flood water canal inside the oasis. Flood water enables to recharge the groundwater aquifer. (Credit: Amine Saidani - February 2019)

However, as the agricultural sector has expanded and intensified over the past 50 years, farmers have started to mine deep, little renewable groundwater resources, which has led to the degradation of natural resources (drawdown of groundwater table; pollution) and raised concerns about the sustainability of this agriculture, but also of the existing oases. Outside the oases, new agricultural landscapes have emerged over the past 50 years with a diversity of agricultural extensions, in particular 1) oasis-inspired extensions, based on the very principle of circularity of the ancient M’Zab oases, and 2) large-scale state-created irrigation schemes, mostly for individual large-scale farms with access to groundwater through tube-wells. These schemes tend towards a mining logic and the principle of circularity is less present.

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