More than 95 per cent of the pumped water from the Berrechid aquifer goes to agriculture in central-western Morocco’s Berrechid plain. The plain covers an area of 1,500 square kilometres and has historically been known as Morocco’s granary for its vast production of cereals and fodder, and more recently, it has been an important legume production hub.
However, over the past two decades, the plain has seen a disorderly intensification of irrigation. Between 2007 and 2017, carrot production, for instance, increased nearly 500 per cent. Despite the immediate economic gains, this process has been one of the causes of the over-exploitation of the Berrechid aquifer, whose more than 95 per cent of pumped water goes to agriculture.
Today, the Berrechid aquifer is one of the most depleted in Morocco. More water has been taken from the aquifer than its natural capacity to recharge. The reserve has recorded an annual deficit of 32 million cubic metres (the equivalent of 12 800 Olympic-size swimming pools) due to overuse and increasingly erratic rainfall patterns. The aquifer also suffers from increasing levels of pollution from agricultural activities.
Rural communities and farmers in Berrechid rely on this essential aquifer to live and to grow the crops on which their household incomes and food security rely.
Though the country had established legal and institutional systems to regulate groundwater use, for several years, most wells in the area were neither declared nor monitored. Water charges were unpaid and illegal drilling accelerated the aquifer’s depletion.
“Life becomes more difficult with water shortages,” says Said Fikri, a farmer in Berrechid. “We need sustainable agriculture that does not deplete water, so our children can continue our work.”
The case in Berrechid sheds light on some of the major concerns about water management in Morocco at large. The country faces “structural water stress” due to population growth combined with climate change and growing urban and industrial demand for water.
Like in Morocco, water is incredibly precious in all of the Near East and North Africa. Freshwater availability in the region is around one-tenth of the global average, having decreased by 78 per cent between 1962 and 2018, compared with a global reduction of 59 per cent over the same period.
While a few decades ago, wells would pump water from 50 metres beneath the surface, now it is nearly three times deeper, compounding the difficulties in accessing water resources.
A watershed deal in a watershed plain
In 2011, the Hydraulic Basin Agency of Bouregreg and Chaouia (ABH-BC) – a governmental division overseeing the use of water in the Bouregreg and Chaouia areas, which includes the Berrechid aquifer – began negotiating a water governance arrangement to stem the groundwater deficit in Berrechid and ensure the sustainable management of these resources.
In November 2021, this process, facilitated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), resulted in the signing of two contracts between ABH-BC and two associations of water users, as a first step towards a broader contract that will go beyond agriculture and engage all concerned actors in the Berrechid watershed.
The contracts grant authorization and regulate the annual use of groundwater per hectare. Farmers are required to install water metres, pay fees and communicate the volumes consumed on a quarterly basis.
Funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, FAO’s Water efficiency, productivity and sustainability in the NENA regions project supported the Moroccan government by providing scientific evidence on water availability and productivity and facilitating dialogue. FAO helped bring the different parties together to sensitize them about the gravity of the aquifer depletion, stress the importance of having a long-term agreement and facilitate their engagement.
The success of the agreement between the government and two private associations, represents a milestone for Morocco and the region at large.
“The governance process that took place over the past decade was a remarkable example of a participatory process that culminated in a responsible way of looking at the aquifer, one that is conscious of future generations and reflects how different public and private actors can collaborate when they have the right motivation and conditions for it,” highlights Abdelhak Laiti, Assistant FAO Representative in Morocco.
Throughout the years, the decreasing availability of the resource and increasing tensions and competition over groundwater have gradually given way to a spirit of cooperation between farmers and State regulators. The collection and dissemination of data on groundwater overexploitation has demonstrated that there is no time for disagreement.
This process also helped build understanding and trust between the government and the farmers. While previously farmers resisted signing an aquifer contract, today they are the ones who champion it.
To complement the governance process, FAO ran farmer field schools to support farmers in undertaking more sustainable management of natural resources.
“The project provided us with valuable information on irrigation issues and agricultural practices, allowing us to reduce quantities of water used, and therefore reduce production costs and improve our income,” says the owner of a carrot field in Jakma commune, Berrechid.
“Thanks to this, we have saved 50 per cent of water compared to gravity irrigation,” exclaims Said.
Strengthening sustainable and inclusive water governance is a living process. Continued dialogue and transparency, as well as investment in accurate data, will be key to preventing any future conflicts that could arise due to a lack of information or inequalities in access to water resources.
Source: the FAO News and Media office, Rome
– global bihari bureau