The Sahara moves northwards

In 2011, a storm near Agoudim, Morocco triggered a large flood that swept down the mountain towards a small, Berber village. The river overflowed its banks and caused chaos in town: all crops near the river were lost; the only road into Agoudim suffered so much damage that it was permanently closed, and many houses were completely flooded. Despite the great personal impacts from the flood, people were most distraught about the damage to the mosque, the spiritual center of the community. Four years after, the destruction wrought by the flood sticks in the collective memory of the town as a danger of environmental change.

Aftermath of 2011 floods in Agoudim (Credit: Hassein Ouzayd)

Aftermath of 2011 floods in Agoudim (Credit: Hassein Ouzayd)

It may be counter intuitive, but increased flooding is a symptom of desertification and the slow creep of the Sahara Desert. When it rains in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the lack of topsoil means that water runs straight into rivers. Hassein Ouzayd, a resident of Agoudim, told me that overgrazing and the harvest of firewood caused the devastating floods, but increased flooding is also connected to global climate change, which disproportionately impacts the world’s poorest.

Flooding is just one way that desertification threatens the livelihoods of rural Moroccans. Agriculture, which provides 44% of labor opportunities and generates 19% of GDP in the country, is most at risk. Access to firewood and water are also at risk.

Unaddressed, these issues will diminish the quality of life in rural Morocco. Even more troubling is that experts expect climate change to make these problems worse by reducing precipitation and increasing temperature. The line between old problems caused by environmental degradation and new problems caused by global climate change is blurry, but all signs point to big changes for Moroccans, especially for poor farmers. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Agoudim from 2008-2010, I came back to Morocco in 2015 to see how environmental degradation is affecting the Amazigh culture.

The Amazigh

The problems currently facing Morocco have roots in the history and culture of the country. The Amazigh – Berbers – migrated to Northern Africa before 10,000 B.C. Although much of Morocco has adopted Arab identity, the Amazigh maintain a unique language and culture in parts of the country. Rural areas – especially areas around the Rif Mountains, the Middle, High, and anti-Atlas Mountains, and near the Sahara – have resisted Arabization. The Amazigh are a fiercely independent people that have long fought against outside rule. Much of the “Arab Spring” protests in Morocco centered around an Amazigh independence movement.

One way that the Amazigh have adopted Arab culture by is embracing Islam. In the marginalized areas where the Amazigh live, people tend to be socially conservative. Islam plays a central role in most people’s lives. It’s no surprise that damage to the mosque in Agoudim was so traumatic.

Many Moroccans regard the Amazigh as uneducated and poor. The word “Berber” itself has a derogatory origin, meaning barbarian in Greek and Roman. Approximately 40-45% of Moroccans identify as Amazigh and speak a Tamazight dialect, but many more have Amazigh ancestry. As Morocco modernizes and many Moroccans leave rural areas, younger generations speak less and less Tamazight, learning the more cosmopolitan languages, Arabic and French.

Travelling in Arab cities as a foreign, Tamazight speaker reveals an interesting relationship between Arabs and the Amazigh. Vendors and tour guides are quick to talk up their Amazigh roots and exotify the culture for the benefit of tourists. But many urban Moroccans told me that the Tamazight language I learned was the language of a backward people; their disdain for the Amazigh was easy to hear and feel.

Amazigh areas have undergone a rapid transformation in the last twenty years. Small villages like Agoudim that were nearly completely isolated have gained electricity, cellphone service, improved access to healthcare and education, and roads that connect them with the outside world.

Town in the Atlas Mountains (Credit: Duncan Gromko)

Town in the Atlas Mountains (Credit: Duncan Gromko)

Despite this development, Amazigh areas remain the most marginalized in Morocco, with local economies based on semi-subsistence agriculture, pastoralism, and moderate income from tourism. According to Dr. Korbinian Freier, an environmental scientist with the Research Unit Sustainability and Global Change at the University of Hamburg, 30% of people in Southern Morocco regard herding of goats and sheep as their primary source of income. Herders walk their animals dozens and dozens of miles, often staying out weeks at a time.

I once walked to the top of a nearby mountain ridge; at 10,000 feet, it is about 4,000 feet above Agoudim. After three hours of hard hiking, I was amazed to find three young men from my village at the top of the mountain. They take their herds to the summit in order to eat the melting snow, which is one of the few sources of water in the summer. Herding has always been hard, but now young men walk harder to find food and water for their animals.

Goats in the Atlas Mountains (Credit: Driss Ouabess)

Goats in the Atlas Mountains (Credit: Driss Ouabess)

Some communities are still semi-nomadic, moving between high mountains in summer and the desert plains in winter. Dr. Ismail Ouraich, an agricultural research from Goulmima, Morocco, said that sheep and goats are more important than just the income they generate: “[People] use livestock as bank accounts. If you have leftover, you invest it in your herd. And if you need the money, you bring the goat to the butcher for money.”

Environmental changes hurt the people

On the fringes of the Sahara Desert, Moroccan agriculture has always faced challenges of poor soil quality and little precipitation. Population and economic growth have put increased pressure on a vulnerable environment. Extensive grazing, the expansion of agriculture, and deforestation have degraded soil cover, leading to erosion and the loss of soil fertility. The Rif Mountains, for instance, have one of the highest rates of erosion in the world.

Energy for cooking and heating primarily comes from wood harvested from nearby forests. Mountainous areas are surprisingly cold in the winter, with individual snowstorms covering the ground in more than one foot of snow. Wood stoves are the primary means of staying warm in this frigid environment. I spent one winter night in Taararte in Midelt Province, where hillsides have been completely deforested. The family I stayed with was the wealthiest in the village and was fortunate enough to be able to buy wood driven in by trucks. Most people had to shiver around fires fueled by small bushes.

Each day in Agoudim, a steady stream of people on donkeys and mule exit the town, in search of firewood. A local, middle-aged woman, Ziniba*, – told me that it takes her several hours to collect wood. Women and girls are primarily responsible for wood collection and this is a huge drain on their time. Ziniba said, “I have to walk farther to cut wood now than when I first came to Agoudim [nearly 20 years ago]. I get home, I’m tired, I don’t have time to milk the cow or talk to my friends before I have to cook dinner.”

Young man walking home after cutting wood (Credit: Duncan Gromko)

Young man walking home after cutting wood (Credit: Duncan Gromko)

Without ground cover, rainwater runs immediately into rivers and floodplains, creating flash floods. Destructive floods are increasingly common in Morocco; a flash flood in 2014 killed 31 people.

These challenges, driven by population and economic growth, are already changing life in rural Morocco. Experts predict that climate change will exacerbate these problems, fueling the northward march of the Sahara. According to Dr. Janpeter Schilling of the University of Hamburg, precipitation could decline by as much as 20% by 2050. At the same time, temperatures are likely to rise by two to three degrees Centigrade.

These changing climactic conditions could lower agriculture productivity in the region by 30-40%. Small farmers will be hurt the most because they are more dependent on seasonal weather. As Dr. Ouraich explains, “The sector is dependent on rainfall, especially small and medium farmers, specifically with cereal crops. This problem is structural in Morocco, we’re still struggling to modernize the sector in order to reduce reliance on weather effects.”

According to Dr. Ouraich, the resulting food price increases will have the biggest impact on poor Moroccans. Surprisingly, many farmers are actually net buyers of food, meaning that increasing prices will hurt them.

Possible solutions

Major polluting countries shoulder major responsibility for climate change and its resulting impacts on countries like Morocco. The negotiations this year in Paris at the Conference of Parties is an opportunity for these countries to commit to change course through legally binding emissions reduction. Should pollution levels continue to rise along their predicted trajectory, however, experts are considering a number ways for Morocco to adapt to these changing conditions, including increased temperatures and low water supply.

In 2008, the Moroccan government launched the Plan Maroc Vert – Green Morocco Plan – to modernize agriculture in the country by improving productivity and resource efficiency in agriculture. Pillar One of the Plan works with larger farmers to improve farming input use, while Pillar Two focuses on working with small farmers in marginal areas by helping them switch to higher value, drought-resistant crops, such as olives. According to Dr. Gabriella Izzi, the Team Leader for the World Bank’s support for agriculture in Morocco, many of the changes will improve farmers’ resilience to climate change by better managing water use and switching to more resilient crops. Additionally, the Plan’s investments are reducing soil erosion by helping farmers switch to no-till farming methods. As of 2014, Pillar Two of the Plan has reached 722,000 farmers.

Fields in Agoudim (Credit: Duncan Gromko)

Fields in Agoudim (Credit: Duncan Gromko)

Despite some successes, the Moroccan Government faces a challenge to reach the small farmers who will be most affected by climate change because they are not credit-worthy. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable farmers are unable to borrow from banks that channel the Plan’s investments. Additionally, the Plan only works indirectly on issues related to herding and soil degradation.

Community leaders in Agoudim are skeptical about such government initiatives because previous efforts never turn out as promised. When I first arrived in 2008, there was a plan to build a community center to train people on carpet-weaving techniques and computer literacy. Two years later, the building was only half finished. When I came back to Agoudim in 2015, I was excited to see that the building was completed. To this day, however, it has been locked, shuttered, and has never hosted any of the promised activities.

There are small-scale projects that target pastoralism. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco from 2011-2013, Sara del Fierro worked on a project in collaboration with the Moroccan High Commission on Water and Forests, a local development association, a nearby National Park, and local government to reduce erosion, flooding, and landslides by stabilizing river banks and reforestation. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled because of differences between the various groups.

Sara wrote, “I think there’s a strong sense of grassroots community organization and entrepreneurialism in Morocco, which gives it a great context for projects to thrive in. Almost every village near [my site] in the High Atlas had some sort of local organization…But introducing these kind of external projects inevitably changes the dynamic.  Questions come up: Who would be the first (pilot) site? Who gets what resources? Who decides who gets these resources?” Competition for scarce resources from international organizations can sour a project and ultimately enrich the most powerful players.

Another Peace Corps volunteer (2008-2010), Logan Sander, worked on a project supported by the United States Agency for International Development to introduce more efficient woodstoves in an effort to reduce deforestation from firewood collection. According to Dr. Korbinian’s research, if firewood collection were eliminated, the soil conservation benefits would be high enough to offset losses from climate change in some areas. Despite two years of work, Logan was only able to convince one business to switch to an efficient woodstove. Accustomed to their traditional stoves, people were skeptical of a foreign technology pushed by an American.

Changing engrained behavior in rural areas represents an enormous challenge, especially in the case of publicly owned environmental resources. Dr. Ouraich says, “It’s a collective action problem, it’s the tragedy of the commons…Nobody has the incentive to do something about it. People are smart, they’re not stupid, and they see that the cost of doing something is really high.” Hassein told me that, although people recognize the source of the problem, sheepherders are unwilling to reduce the size of their herds because they have no other way to make money.

Driss Ouabess, a resident of Agoudim, started a small hotel and guide service in an effort to diversify his income. If people can make money from sources that don’t degrade the land, it will reduce pressure on the environment. The hotel is growing in popularity, but in an isolated place like Agoudim, Driss is unable to attract enough tourists in order to stop farming.

Whether or not these small-scale efforts are effective, it is important to remember the enormity of the problem and that nothing less than economic revolution is required to reduce Morocco’s susceptibility to climate change. 

Will Morocco be the same?

Walking the dusty streets of Agoudim for the first time since 2010 was an emotional experience. The changes like the 2011 flood are just the tip of the iceberg. The Amazigh have been living in the Atlas Mountains for millennia. They are a resilient people who have fought back against invading armies, but I wonder how much more they can withstand, while remaining who they are and maintaining their way of life. I admired the beauty of this place and these people, but I am afraid for their future. I know that there is no time to lose when it comes to climate action.

The most likely climate change adaptation strategy is not one managed centrally by the Moroccan government or supported by environmental projects, but a collection of choices made by individual Moroccans to protect their livelihoods. These choices will affect Amazigh traditions and a way of life that has existed for millennia. Rural Moroccans are resourceful and have always dealt with harsh climatic conditions, but climate change will test their resiliency.

Traditional wedding in Atlas Mountains (credit: Duncan Gromko)

Traditional wedding in Atlas Mountains (credit: Duncan Gromko)

The Amazigh and other North Africans will look northwards, to Europe, to escape the advancing Sahara Desert. Dr. Korbinian says, “Europe is already overwhelmed by the refugees from Syria. If climate change has a large impact and people are free to choose, this refugee wave will increase.” Will Europe and other major polluting regions invest now in order to avoid this climate catastrophe? Or will they delay and pay a different price later?

*Subject’s name was changed