In an article written for Truthout, Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, reports on the twin threats of capitalist development and climate change in Morocco, and how ordinary Moroccans are resisting.
IN MANY ways, Morocco exemplifies the cultural possibilities of a freer humanity. One meets on the streets, fields, mountains and deserts of this geographically and climatologically variegated country, a population universally fluent in at least two languages, many effortlessly switching, mid-sentence, between Arabic, French and Amazigh, the mother tongue of 50 percent of Moroccans. Hospitality to guests is taken very seriously; meals among friends and family are shared and eaten communally, while a common glass is passed around for drinking water. A large percentage of the land is held in common and administered locally by elected tribal leaders for the benefit of all.
A cradle of cultural intermixing, Morocco sits at the crossroads of empires, past and present. A mere 12 miles from Europe, fringed by the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the north, the fisheries of the Atlantic Ocean to the west, crisscrossed by the snowcapped Atlas mountains, providing the lifeblood for the agricultural areas and floodplains of the coast as rivers descend to the sea, and bordered to the south by the gigantic dunes of the Sahara, fading east toward Algeria, its people are comfortable in many social, ecological and cultural worlds.
Unfortunately, seldom have Moroccans been able or allowed to decide their own destiny, despite formal independence from the French in 1956. Classified by the World Bank as part of the strategically important MENA region (Middle East-North Africa), a term invented to cover 20 predominantly Arabic countries without mentioning the word “Arab,” Morocco replicates the colonial moniker of “Middle East” as a designation foreign to the people who live there, but useful for the people who don’t.
… WITH CLIMATE change, an already arid country, one that so lacks rainfall in the south that the country becomes desert, is becoming gradually drier. The MENA region is home to 6 percent of the world’s population, but has less than 1 percent of renewable water resources. Countries such as Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Palestine are already suffering from acute water shortages (defined as less than 500 cubic meters per person per year).
Just as the rains become less dependable and decrease in amount, a greater and greater amount of fresh water is needed. Irrigation is by far the largest single user of water, at a moment in time when agriculture is being switched to often water-intensive, cash crops for export. In addition, the government is behind plans for a massive expansion of the tourism industry, with the building of giant new tourist resorts.
The government’s “Plan Azur” calls for the construction of six tourist “stations,” along the Mediterranean coastal area of Saïdia and the Atlantic, covering a total of 7 million square meters. One of the six already under construction, in Saïdia, will “develop” one of Morocco’s most important hotspots of biodiversity, the estuary of the Oued Melouia, home to some of Morocco’s rarest species, living in and amongst its dune forests.
… The conflict over water and the priorities of “development” are perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in Ben Smim, a village of 3,000 inhabitants high in the Atlas Mountains. When a water bottling company first came to the village in 2001, hoping to take advantage of the pure mountain stream water that had sustained the villagers and their cattle breeding since the 17th century, tribal elder Moulay Tahiri Alaoui organized the resistance.
A union worker and activist since his days working at the hulking tuberculosis sanatorium nearby, built by the French in the colonial period and long-since abandoned, Tahiri knew from the beginning that the people’s water would be stolen and their access restricted. He was becoming progressively more worried about the increasing number of droughts and knew that the villagers’ way of life would be further threatened should the village’s spring be diverted by the Euro-Africaine des Eaux water bottling company.
OVER THE ensuing years, the villagers staged a heroic resistance, including occupations, petitions and blockades. Women were at the forefront of the protests because they bear the brunt of water-related activities. The authorities responded with repression, arrests, including of tribal elder Tahiri, and for a period of time, the cordoning off of the entire village from the outside world. The protests reached the king, and some compensation and extra jobs were promised, along with new roads, to make up for the ones the company was destroying with their trucks.
The combination of repression, arrests, jail terms and bribes, were enough to force the villagers to concede their historical common water rights. Since 2010, when the company completed construction of the plant and began operation, it has created only 10 jobs and withdraws over 300,000 liters of water a day from the communal spring that is now fenced off. As Tahiri predicted, villagers have been forced to ration water for domestic and agricultural use and move to a multi-day rotation system, whereby houses have water only every third day.