All that remains is a vast expanse of cracked earth, littered with shells, witnesses of a not-so-distant time when this place was home to an immense lake. In Morocco, the Al Massira Dam, the country’s second largest reservoir, located 120 kilometers north of Marrakech, is dry. From its ancient banks, you now have to walk at least two kilometers, under a blazing sun and heat that peaks at 30°C in January, to reach the stagnant pond at the foot of the building. Sad decor, emblematic of a country threatened by water shortages due to global warming, aggravated by overexploitation of its water resources.

Morocco is heading towards a sixth consecutive year of drought. Since September, precipitation has shown a deficit of 70% compared to the average, indicated on January 16, the Minister of Equipment and Water, Nizar Baraka. The situation is critical to the point of posing a serious threat to the drinking water supply of villages and towns.

“The land was fertile, the water abundant”

The period from 2019 to 2022 was the driest since the 1960s, according to the General Directorate of Meteorology, while 2023, also marked by low rainfall, saw five heat waves including an absolute record of 50.4° C in Agadir in August. Rising temperatures increase water evaporation in dams, which are now only 23% full. In Al Massira, it’s 1%.

At the edge of the lake, the inhabitants of the village of Ouled Sidi Mâssoud pray every day for rain. Just a few years ago, “everything was green here,” says Massoudi Benchatoui, the 95-year-old patriarch of the douar. The land was fertile, the water abundant. There were fishermen, tourists who came to picnic. All that is gone.” In front of her house, Lalia Sbai, 70, holds a piece of earth in her hands that is disintegrating into dust. “It’s been four years since nothing grew here, neither wheat nor cereals,” she laments. People sell their animals, they don’t have enough to feed them. »

Persistent drought has transformed this rural province called Rhamna into a rocky desert, crossed by furrows of dry rivers. The Oum Errabiâ river, second in the country, on which the Al Massira dam is built, is a river in name only. Pumping its water is now prohibited, as is irrigation from the dam. As a result, “we can no longer water the olive trees, which will die,” says Mohamed Bribch, a farmer in the neighboring village of Driwkat. People are abandoning agriculture, some are going to work in the city.”

Only a few islands of greenery remain, equipped with drip irrigation pipes, with wells running on solar energy. But although irrigated, these farms are also in danger. “Every year it gets worse,” alarms Ahmed Azizi, 52, owner of a farm with 1,000 olive and orange trees near the dam. You have to dig deeper and deeper to find water and even 150 meters sometimes you find nothing. »

Drastic rationalization of water use

However, the issue is crucial in a country where agriculture, a pillar of the economy, represents 31% of employment and 12% of GDP. After five years of drought, the sector is “knee to the ground”, warns Mohamed Taher Sraïri, teacher researcher at the Agronomic and Veterinary Institute of Rabat: “Traditional rain-fed agriculture, which represents at least 80% of cultivated areas, is affected, as is irrigated agriculture, because the pressure increases on the groundwater from which the water is drawn. Some people end up sacrificing their livestock and even uprooting their trees. »

Faced with the emergency, the authorities are banking on the desalination of sea water. Seven plants are planned, which will be added to the twelve existing ones, to reach a production capacity of 1.4 billion m3 per year in 2030 (compared to 186.5 million currently). New dams must also be built, as well as wastewater recycling stations.

At the same time, the country has accelerated its “water highway” projects – interconnections of basins aimed at transporting water from the north to drier areas in the south. The first section, commissioned in August, which connects the Sebou river dam to the Bouregreg dam, near Rabat, would have already made it possible to avoid the disaster scenario: without this connection, drinking water would have been cut off on December 18 in Casablanca and Rabat, the economic and political capitals of the kingdom, said Mr. Baraka.

However, water security can only be ensured at the cost of drastic rationalization of water use, particularly in agriculture, which takes up 89% of the resource. Presented as a large economic success but criticized, the Green Morocco plan (2008-2018) strongly influenced the country’s agricultural strategy. “It has amplified the development of irrigated, productivist agriculture, focused on fruit and vegetable crops intended for export, which consume a lot of water,” explains Mr. Sraïri. This has resulted in overexploitation of water resources to unsustainable levels. »

Change paradigm

In fact, many farmers, encouraged by large subsidies, have converted to localized drip irrigation systems. “This technique was promoted with the illusion that it would save water. However, quite the opposite has happened, observes Ali Hatimy, agronomist and co-founder of the Nechfate information site on climate change in Morocco. Crops that are ever more demanding of water, such as avocado or citrus fruits, have expanded. Crop cycles have accelerated and irrigated areas have greatly increased. »

At the same time, groundwater has dried up. Not to mention that this strategy, by focusing everything on export crops and agribusiness, has “marginalized small family farming, the main producer of basic products intended to feed the population such as cereals, sugar, etc.,” adds Mr. Hatimy, to the detriment of rural development and the country’s food sovereignty.”

Although a new plan, Generation Green, adopted in 2020, includes “resilience” and “eco-efficiency” objectives, the questioning of these orientations remains timid on the political level. “The subject is sensitive,” emphasizes Ali Hatimy. Because political elites are also often rural, agricultural and agro-exporting elites. Real water saving would require immense political courage, as the State would go against their interests. »

However, there is an urgent need to change the paradigm, warn many specialists. “This would amount to favoring crops that use less water, backed by rainwater, and encouraging pastoral farming, etc.,” defends Mr. Sraïri. To definitively admit that an arid and semi-arid country can no longer be an agricultural power, even less for export. »