Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

ENVIRONMENT-MOROCCO: The Old Picture Is Disappearing

Abderrahim El Ouali* - IPS/IFEJ

CASABLANCA, Oct 30 2006 (IPS) - The visitor to Morocco has often been tempted by pictures with the proverbial palm tree somewhere in the frame. But fewer and fewer of these trees are now around, and at this rate of decline the visitor of the future might not find any at all.

The picture is changing; it is now of the Sahara desert advancing into once green stretches. More than 22,000 hectares of arable land disappear under the desert every year now in Morocco, according to official figures.

Desertification is now threatening all of the country. The ministry for the environment has said that almost 93 percent of Morocco is affected by aridity.

Date palms are the most ravaged by desertification. At the end of the 19th century Morocco had an estimated 15 million date palms, according to a study by geographer Ahmed Harrak. That number has now slipped to 4.5 million.

In losing date palms the local population “loses the main source of income, and is consequently forced to abandon the land and leave,” M. Achlif, member of the independent group, the Moroccan Association for Development and Solidarity told IPS.

Many Moroccans believe they can do little because the main causes of advancing desertification appear to be natural. “North Africa is mostly an arid or semi-arid region,” geographer Bouazza Zahir told IPS. “For every 1,000 square kilometres, Morocco has 700 square kilometres of arid land.”

Land could now be lapsing into arid conditions more rapidly as sources of water are getting reduced, Zahir said.

Nature cannot, however, be blamed entirely. “Exaggerated pastoral activity and the misuse of land are significant factors,” Zahir said. And the population demands on the disappearing green areas are increasing.

“The average annual population increase in the arid regions is 3.5 percent,” Zahir said. “Therefore land is overused because the population seeks maximum benefits for itself in the minimum time possible.”

A national plan against desertification was launched in 2001. The plan aims to strengthen the political, legislative and institutional framework of government and other bodies to come together to contain desertification.

It seeks to limit government role and involve more agencies. Under the plan the government agreed “to anticipate new autonomic and decentralised forms of organisation.” Projects to fight desertification “should be fulfilled within a contractual framework that would define obligations of all intervention.”

The conceptual agreements are making little difference on the ground at most places.

Residents of Mhamid al-Ghouzlane in Zagora province in the south say advancing sand dunes are choking farmlands and water resources. People are left to their own devices to get around these difficulties as they can.

Independent environment groups have meanwhile been set up around Morocco to fight desertification. A network of various groups was founded in 1997 to tackle the problem.

“But associations do not have enough financial and logistical means,” said Achlif, who is a resident of Mhamid al-Ghouzlane.

The national action plan aims to strengthen the capacities of associations. “But such action will not be successful in the absence of a vigorous programme for communication awareness raising,” said Zahir.

Efforts in this direction nevertheless need to be made, he said. “This action towards local development actors is crucial. Too often there is a deficit in managerial skills, and this is a serious hindrance to development plans.”

The government plan now envisages training for both civil servants and local representatives. Training will also be offered to rural youth. About 81 percent of farmers in arid and semi-arid lands are illiterate, according to official figures.

At the same time the programme aims to promote scientific research on desertification, and encourage development of “technological packages” that would help local people understand and deal with the problem better.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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