Drâa Valley, Morocco

The Project

The Drâa river basin in southeast Morocco consists of six oases. The new modes of control and access over water and land resources, in combination with the current agricultural policies, provide new business opportunities for some investors. However, for the endogenous population, access to and control over these resources is increasingly restrained, putting local livelihoods at risk, and forcing peasant families to adapt to new hydrologic and agricultural realities, and reshuffling livelihood activities in highly gendered ways. 

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Maps of the T2GS region of study in Morocco (Credit: Farah Hamamouche)

The groundwater table in the Drâa river basin is declining not only in wells used for irrigation, but also in domestic wells located near settlements that are used to fetch the water needed for drinking, cooking, washing and watering the animals. The Moroccan team focuses on: 1) changes in collective action from the collective management of a surface irrigation system to new forms of collective action and of sharing and caring practices around groundwater use and conservation; 2) gendered dynamics of groundwater abstraction.

Elderly man in the oasis of Mezguita is irrigating his fodder crops. (Credit: Lisa Bossenbroek)

Background

The Drâa river valley in southern Morocco is of great importance because of its natural and cultural heritage and has been recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and RAMSAR Site. Though the area is characterized by a desert climate with low precipitation, it naturally receives surface water from the Atlas Mountains. These water resources have enabled the establishment of a string of six oases that are 200 km long in the upper part of Wadi Drâa (Mezguita, Tinzouline, Ternata, Fezouata, Ktaoua and M’Hamid), which forms a dense green stripe in the arid environment. 

A water basin in the Feija plain, used to stock groundwater to irrigate water melons. (Credit: Hind Ftouhi)

Agricultural fields equipped with drip irrigation in the plain of Feija. (Credit: Hind Ftouhi)

Water is essential for providing life to the oases and is indispensable for agricultural activities, which comprise the area’s main economic activity (Kuhn et al. 2010). Water is thus central to the development and preservation of the oases and local livelihoods. Over the past couple of decades, climate change and human interventions have significantly altered water flows in this area. Less rainfall and increasing and increasing droughts have strongly affected the availability of water. The construction of the Eddahbi Mansour Dam in 1972 also further altered water availability. After the construction of the dam, water distribution of the oases was managed periodically by dam releases, from which each oasis received an allotted amount of water. Initially, four to eight releases were planned on a yearly basis (Ait Hamza 2005). Today, however, the number of releases has diminished to four annually.

The Drâa river valley in southern Morocco is of great importance because of its natural and cultural heritage and has been recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and RAMSAR Site. Though the area is characterized by a desert climate with low precipitation, it naturally receives surface water from the Atlas Mountains. These water resources have enabled the establishment of a string of six oases that are 200 km long in the upper part of Wadi Drâa (Mezguita, Tinzouline, Ternata, Fezouata, Ktaoua and M’Hamid), which forms a dense green stripe in the arid environment. Water is essential for providing life to the oases and is indispensable for agricultural activities, which comprise the area’s main economic activity (Kuhn et al. 2010).

Oasis agriculture in the Todgha Valley. (Credit: Marcel Kuper)

Water is thus central to the development and preservation of the oases and local livelihoods. Over the past couple of decades, climate change and human interventions have significantly altered water flows in this area. Less rainfall and increasing and increasing droughts have strongly affected the availability of water. The construction of the Eddahbi Mansour Dam in 1972 also further altered water availability. After the construction of the dam, water distribution of the oases was managed periodically by dam releases, from which each oasis received an allotted amount of water. Initially, four to eight releases were planned on a yearly basis (Ait Hamza 2005). Today, however, the number of releases has diminished to four annually.

Women harvesting their crops in the oasis of Mezguita. (Credit: Students of the University Hassan II)

Increasing droughts and the construction of the dam have pushed farmers in the Drâa river basin to dig more wells to access groundwater (Outabiht, 1981). The number of wells throughout the basin and the use of motor pumps have notably increased from only 205 mechanized wells in 1965 to approximately 4,200 by 1977 (Chamayou 1966). An estimated 2,000 of those wells  were equipped with a motor pump (Outabiht 1981). In 1985, the number of motor pumps doubled and further rose to 7,000 in 2005 and then 10,000 in 2011 (Karmaoui et al. 2016). The growing number of newly irrigated lands outside of the oases further spurred the increase in well numbers. Since land parcels within the oases are usually small and changes in ownership are often restrained, new investors usually set up modern farms, or so-called “new extensions”, on collective lands on the borders of the traditional oases.

Dates in the oasis of Kataoua. (Credit: Lisa Bossenbroek)

Traditionally, the local population used these lands for grazing purposes. Over the past couple of years, the vocation of these lands gradually changed, as many of the newly installed farms consist of fully irrigated monocropped farming systems. These systems are characterized by high value crops (water melons, melons, palm trees) and the use of drip irrigation and deep tube-wells. For example, from 2012 to 2013, the area cultivated with watermelons doubled from 670 hectares to 1,130 hectares (Karmaoui et al. 2014). The newly irrigated extensions fully rely on groundwater extraction and contribute to the intensified competition over groundwater resources and are accompanied by new land acquisitions and the mobilization of paid agricultural labor. 

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