By Louise Sarant and Rachael McDonnell
The Covid-19 pandemic that swept the world struck Morocco in early March, when two patients freshly returned from Italy displayed signs of the severe acute respiratory syndrome. On March 20, the government shut down schools, suspended international passenger flights, and imposed a strict lockdown. Since then, the country has had over tens of thousands of confirmed cases and over 4,000 deaths, predominantly in Tangiers, Casablanca, Marrakech, Fez, Meknes and Rabat.
While the virus did not spread as widely across the Moroccan countryside as it did in the densely populated cities, the economic repercussions of the containment measures imposed by the government to limit the spread of infection came at a huge cost to rural populations, already grappling with a severe drought since early 2019.
The confinement rules imposed on the population were more lenient in rural areas, with many farmers allowed to work the land, harvest their crops and supply markets all over the country. Nevertheless, an official study by the High Commission for Planning, revealed that 70 percent of the rural population and 77 percent of farmers experienced a drop in income in 2020, compared to 59 percent of people living in cities. Additionally, countless rural households have been affected by reduced extra income, normally provided by family members living in cities.
But more critically, farmers have been struggling with a second year of drought, especially in the South and the East of the country. Dams’ water reserves have dropped below 50%, cereal production has dwindled, and water for irrigation has been cut off in some regions.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has been supporting the Moroccan government to manage increasing water scarcity and droughts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Cutting-edge drought monitoring systems help to manage the limited water and grazing availability.
The Mutual Moroccan Agriculture Insurance Company responded to the drought crisis by allocating MAD 200 million (USD 20.2 million) to farmers affected by drought in the province of Rehamna, in the Marrakesh-Safi region. Other farmers received their drought insurance earlier than previous years, because of the onset of the pandemic.
“I have lost 45 percent of my wheat and barley production this season, and I’ve let my sheep graze on a few hectares of completely damaged land,” says Si Mohamed Amin, a 45-year-old farmer from Ouled Teima in the southern province of Taroudant.
In Morocco, cereals are mostly cultivated by small landholders, and farmers like Si Mohamed are by default the most vulnerable to climatic vagaries since cereal crops are rainfed. According to USDA forecasts, the ongoing drought has slashed cereal production by 42 percent this year compared to 2019, with a domestic harvest not expected to exceed 4 million tons.
However, farmers whose crops are rain-dependent are not the only ones suffering from drought. “When a drought occurs, it also has negative impacts on irrigated crops,” explains Mohamed Wakrim, an agricultural economist and a retired official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Rural Development, Water and Forests. Droughts increase evapotranspiration rates, which makes it difficult to meet the water needs of crops and lead to greater crop losses, he explains.
“In March, the level of water contained in the nearby dam was so low that the access for irrigation was suspended in favor of municipal supplies,” explains Abdelqader, a 48 year old commercial farmer from Chtouka, a southern province of the Souss-Massa region where 70 percent of Morocco’s agricultural exports in citrus, fruits and vegetables is produced. “All of a sudden, we were forced to organize ourselves and pump groundwater,” explains the farmer, who cultivates 20 hectares of tomatoes in greenhouses.
Over the last 5 decades, drought events have intensified in Morocco. While historically a drought would occur once every decade, they have become more frequent. On average, drought episodes now take place three times per decade, last longer, and span larger portions of the territory.
Because the primary sector employs 40 percent of the workforce and contributes 15% to the Moroccan GDP, a intense drought can severely affect the economy. The drought of 1999 for example, caused GDP to fall by 1.5 percent, and the ongoing one has generated a 6 percent drop in the value-added in agriculture in the second trimester of 2020, according to the High Commission of Planning.
In 2008, the Moroccan government launched the ‘Green Morocco Plan’ to modernize the agriculture sector, move away from the predominance of rain-dependent cereals, diversify its production into higher-value added crops (mostly citrus and vegetables), and increase the irrigated perimeter by providing commercial farmers with drip-irrigation systems for free, or at a very low-cost.
Today, 15 percent of Morocco’s agricultural land is irrigated, and the bulk of it is located in the Souss-Massa region. However, when a year-on-year drought occurs, water supplies contained in dams plummet, which forces farmers to tap into overexploited and collapsing aquifers near the Atlantic Ocean to meet their irrigation needs. A large desalination plant currently under construction near Agadir, the first of its kind worldwide to desalinate water for irrigation and municipal uses, should relieve the pressure on aquifers.
Water shortages are not new, explains Mohamed Sinan, a member of the scientific committee for the UN’s climate conference held in Morocco in 2016 (COP 22), hydrogeologist and the head of the hydraulic, environment and climate department at the Hassania School of Public Works. “During the last 25 years there has been a permanent deficit in meeting the needs of the irrigated perimeter from dams,” he says. Dam filling does not exceed is 40 to 50 percent, and there are restrictions on water for irrigation in the South and the East, regardless of the pandemic. “In rural areas, people are far more concerned with the effects of drought than Covid-19,” he says.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is launching an AI-powered seasonal rainfall forecasting tool, developed in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and funded by USAID. This will enable forecasting for up to two months ahead, helping to guide the allocation of scarce water resources for multiple needs while managing both environmental impacts and tension between different farming communities.
For Lhaj Mokhtar, a 52-year-old farmer who cultivates 3 hectares of maize and vegetables in the south of Agadir, the pandemic has not been a major source of concern. What worries him is the drop in aquifer levels and the increasing salinity of the water, which have become the norm in his region.
“The most vulnerable populations, Covid-19 or not, remain vulnerable,” says Khalid Tamsamami, a climate change expert from the University of Abdelmalek el Saadi, and general secretary the Tangiers-based Mediterranean Climate Foundation. In Morocco just like elsewhere, vulnerability is linked to the degree of poverty. “Covid-19 has accelerated this vulnerability because it has left parts of the rural and urban populations without work or resources.”