top of page

Michelaina Johnson & Marcel Kuper

What’s Up With Groundwater In Morocco? 

Michelaina Johnson is a doctoral student in the Environmental Studies department at UCSC studying under Dr. Flora Lu. Her research interests include water governance, sustainable groundwater management, saltwater intrusion, and

Michelaina Johnson.jpeg

addressing the water access gap in her home state of California. She has a background in environmental advocacy and journalism, with articles appearing in Water Deeply, The Revelator, Ojai Valley News, Bay Nature Magazine, and the Ojai Quarterly. ​

The Transitions to Sustainable Groundwater (T2SGS) project is an international initiative aimed at understanding the historical and contemporary groundwater management and governance challenges that seven different countries face and the steps that communities in those nations are taking to address them. As part of this effort, researchers from Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America are sharing their expertise, experiences, and analysis regarding the state of groundwater in their respective regions and are seeking to identify common threads between the countries. At UC Santa Cruz, two classes have enabled students to engage in the knowledge sharing process, including interviewing international T2SGS scholars. 

Morocco in northern Africa comprises one of the case studies. Dr. Marcel Kuper, a scholar with the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), an organization working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions, heads up the research team in Morocco. 

Morocco is a semi-arid country whose ancestral and present day land stewards practiced cultivation in oases. In a 2020 interview with students in a T2SGS-sponsored UCSC class, Dr. Kuper described oases as having three tiers of agriculture: the first is annual crops (i.e. cereals, forage crops), then fruit trees in the middle, and finally palm trees on the outside. Oases are artificial constructs. Dr. Kuper explained that ancient societies developed the oasis to generate a favorable microclimate in which crops for sustenance can survive better, people are protected from the sun, and the little rain that falls in the desert can be more easily captured. 

French settlers, as well as subsequent land management practices, immensely altered Morocco’s landscape. During the colonial period between 1912-1956, settlers expropriated land to set up large-scale farms, which the state took possession of following independence on March 2, 1956. The new state government subsequently handed the estates either over to the private sector, to the former workers of the farms, or to landless or nearly landless peasants who were organized into cooperatives of agrarian reform (Kuper et al. 2017). 

The privatization of some colonial landholdings, the introduction of tube wells and large-scale irrigation schemes, and national government incentives to invest in intensive agriculture all significantly influenced groundwater management and levels in the mid-twentieth century. Beginning in the early 1980s, major droughts severely reduced surface water availability and pushed farmers to drill more and deeper wells, a trend that intermittently continues through today (Kuper et al. 2012; see Figure 1 in that reference for a visual). The enhanced use of groundwater “maintained and even encouraged the agricultural middle class that irrigation authorities hoped to establish with the introduction of large scale irrigation schemes” (Kuper et al. 2012, p. 51). 

Farms with large landholdings reap the most benefits from Morocco’s current agricultural and water systems because they use the most government subsidized water and have the funds to own mechanical wells and irrigation systems. These irrigation systems enable the medium and large scale growers to cultivate non-traditional crops that can be sold for global export, creating a more sustainable income and reducing the risk burdens that myriad smallholders face. At least in the 100,000 plus hectare Tudla irrigation district in Morocco, micro farmers “are obliged to put up with the existing situation,” lacking access to groundwater and options to improve agricultural productivity (Kuper et al. 2012, p. 52). None of this is to say that smallholders have not invented informal mechanisms to deal with the inequality in access to groundwater and infrastructure. These mechanisms include the creation of informal water markets, joint investment of several small farmers in a tube-well, community managed irrigation systems, illicit well drillers, and agricultural product salespeople (Kuper et al. 2016). 

This informal groundwater economy is invisible, powerful, difficult to monitor, and rapidly evolving. These characteristics make it very difficult for the state government to regulate and also make the informal economy vulnerable to opportunistic investments. Kuper et al. (2016) caution that an attempt by the Moroccan government to formalize the groundwater economy could exacerbate existing inequalities, especially considering that the informal economy helps small and some medium sized growers to have access to the same resources as large landholders. 

The complex development and use of groundwater and of various farming systems in Morocco make generating an all-encompassing sustainable management strategy for groundwater extremely difficult yet increasingly necessary, as groundwater levels have started to decline. The consequences include decreasing water available for irrigation, saltwater intrusion, and elevated concern on the part of growers and the government that high agricultural output will not be viable. 

As Dr. Kuper said in the interview with UCSC students, “Some people will really have to make sacrifices. These are not easy questions. That makes it very tough to act and to reduce groundwater use in these areas.” 

The government is unlikely to directly and authoritatively intervene. Rather, Kuper et al. (2017) point out that major policies aimed at addressing groundwater over extraction and even climate change will “have to be carried out with the active support of farmers and the rural areas in general, and certainly not against their will. In other words, they will have to gain wide legitimacy” (p. 737). With small, medium, and large farmers holding an immense amount of decision making power and influence in different forms, questions around what Morocco’s agricultural economy will look like in the future and how inequity issues, especially with regard to access and use of natural resources, will factor into the equation loom on the horizon. 




Kuper, Marcel, Ali Hammani, Anne Chohin, Patrice Garin, and Mohamed Saaf. “When Groundwater Takes over: Linking 40 Years of Agricultural and Groundwater Dynamics in a Large-Scale Irrigation Scheme in Morocco.” Irrigation and Drainage 61, no. S1 (April 1, 2012): 45–53.


Kuper, Marcel, Hichem Amichi, and Pierre-Louis Mayaux. “Groundwater Use in North Africa as a Cautionary Tale for Climate Change Adaptation.” Water International 42, no. 6 (2017): 725–40.Kuper, Marcel, Nicolas Faysse, Ali Hammani, Tarik Hartani, Serge Marlet, Meriem Farah Hamamouche, and Fatah Ameur.

“Liberation or Anarchy? The Janus Nature of Groundwater Use on North Africa’s New Irrigation Frontiers.” In Integrated Groundwater Management, 583–615. Springer, Cham, 2016.

bottom of page