How climate change is destroying Morocco’s oases

Halim Sbai remembers a time when date palms were green and lush. The music teacher and conductor lived in the oasis of M’hamid El Ghizlane in southeastern Morocco for most of his 52 years.

Decades ago, he recalls, a river flowed through the oasis all year round. Gazelles and sheep drank from its banks, in the shade of the dense palm groves. Now there is no constant flow of water. The ground is cracked and barren.

Sitting on a colorful rug in his home, over a tea and date snack, Sbai says his oasis is undergoing catastrophic change. “Droughts are becoming more and more frequent. The palm trees surrounding the oasis are dying one after the other.

Every year, he says, the oasis gets smaller. Hundreds of fragile palm trees now border M’hamid el Ghizlane. Part of the village is buried in the sand and was once rich in agricultural land abandoned.

A “broken” system.

The crisis facing this oasis is not an anomaly in Morocco, where drought exacerbated by climate change is destroying once robust ecosystems.

The habitats of the oases are multilayered. Date palms provide shade for other arable crops, such as wheat and vegetables. The cattle graze on the land and provide for the communities.

“These are systems that have withstood all the impacts of climate change over time,” said Youssef Brouziyne, representative for the Middle East and North Africa of the International Water Management Institute. He noted that scientists study oases to understand how to make other ecosystems more resilient. But the lack of rain, as well as the new systems of intensive agriculture, have jeopardized the balance. “It’s broken,” he said.

Outside farmers have harvested land inexpensively and introduced agricultural methods that suck water from native plants. Families who have worked the land for generations have lost their livelihoods and left their homes.

“When the palm dies, the oasis is gone,” said Aomar Boum, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa. “These traditional settlements are linked to dynasties and histories and have no one to take care of them.”

There were hundreds of families in the village of Ait M’hanned, near the southern oasis of Tighmert; only four remain, according to Mohammed Zriouili, a resident in his fifties.

“There is no more work,” he said. Most of her neighbors who used to farm have moved north.

It could only get worse. By 2100, annual rainfall is projected to decrease by 30% in the Saharan regions, home to many of the country’s oases. The drying soil contributed to the death of an esteem two thirds of Morocco’s 14 million date palms in the past century.

“Date palms are very heat-resistant crops, but their productivity can decline when temperatures exceed certain thresholds or warm conditions prevail for long periods,” said Fatima Driouech, Moroccan climate scientist and vice president of the intergovernmental working group. on climate change group I.

The shrinking of these oases is another sad omen for a world that is warming.

What could be lost

For centuries, Moroccan oases have been part of the trade route linking the sub-Saharan economies to North Africa and the Mediterranean. This has fostered a unique blend of Amazigh, Jewish, Islamic, Arab and African identities imbued with all aspects of communities, from farming techniques to music, said Boum, the anthropologist.

Oases have been exotic from colonial literature as places of respite: a cold pool of water for the desert traveler to drink from, the shimmering shade of palm leaves promising safety and shelter from the brutal Saharan heat.

But in reality, Boum said, “these are some of the hardest places to live.”

Boum grew up in the southeastern province of Tata, in the oasis of Lamhamid.

His father woke up at 3am to look after the carefully constructed canals that used age-old irrigation techniques to bring water from the earth to the green. They could collect dates from the dense palm forest by jumping from tree to tree, never touching the ground.

“Now, you have holes all over the place,” Boum said.

Older generations in oases across the country mourn lost traditions unique to the land they once cultivated, while younger generations are trying to sow the seeds of a new future.

Hicham El Fissaoui, 27, raised in the desert city of Guelmim, is one of many who have tried to find a new life abroad when opportunities have run out at home. He emigrated to France, where he lived for a year. After working hard and poorly paid jobs, he decided to go home.

His family and friends in Morocco thought it was a bad idea. But he has found a job he likes and a way to spread joy: work as a kindergarten teacher and volunteer as a clown for a children’s organization.

Efforts are underway to preserve the oases and their traditions.

Environmentalists have launched initiatives to restore palm groves and improve the use of available water, Driouech said. In the town of Skoura, beekeepers work to protect the endangered yellow bee, vital to the area’s unique biodiversity.

Potters melt red clay using tools and techniques that date back to previous generations. Sbai, the conductor, teaches children the music of their ancestors.

For those who remain, safeguarding what remains involves the pain of knowing what has been lost.

“When I was young, the oasis was like a paradise on earth, so rich in water and so green,” said Mohammed Askaren, a retired elementary school teacher who supports oasis conservation in Ifrane, a city in the region of ‘Anti-Atlas of Morocco.

“Today we are witnessing its deterioration”.

About this story

Photograph by M’hammed Kilito / VII Mentor Program. Written by Ruby Mellen. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Editing by Olivier Laurent, Joseph Moore, Reem Akkad and Jesse Mesner-Hage.

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