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Getting a GRIPP on Morocco's aquifer contracts

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.
A groundwater irrigation pump in Morocco.
A groundwater irrigation pump in Morocco.

Last month, the world crossed a critical threshold.  On 8th August 2016, solemnly called ‘Earth Overshoot Day,’ humans exhausted the supply of natural resources that the planet can replenish within one year.  Earth Overshoot Day comes every year, and some countries have taken measures to be more conscientious of resource use. Morocco has instituted numerous policies aimed at curbing the overdraft of its supplies of groundwater; some measures have been more successful than others. According to data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), in 2008, the northwestern-most African country withdrew an estimated 3,170 Mm3 of water out of the available renewable total of 4,000 Mm3, which appears sustainable at least on paper.

Morocco’s promising overall state-of-affairs, however, masks harsh realities: in some aquifers, over-exploitation is occurring at a rate of 248%, and there is a lack of congruence between water management policies and implementation frameworks.  Dr. Alvar Closas and Dr. Karen Villholth’s GRIPP Case Study on Aquifer Contracts in Morocco delves into the complexities of the water management situation in Morocco and offers appropriate commentary and recommendations for improvement.  The case study also examines the key roles and responsibilities that various levels of groundwater management are meant to achieve and why they fell short as part of other larger initiatives in the country, like decentralization efforts and the push for effective agriculture through the Green Morocco Plan.

Aquifer contracts, the main focus of the case study, are technical and financial contracts between partners and stakeholders either using groundwater or concerned with the state of groundwater and its sustainability (e.g. the Government, farmers, Water Users Associations, River Basin Agencies, etc.). In the Souss, a region heavily impacted by groundwater over-abstraction, the aquifer contract signed in 2006 and the resultant framework agreement included many measures to be implemented across the basin.  Large-scale farmers faced an increase in water fees and all farmers were asked to limit further increases in cultivation area of citrus trees and vegetables.  Programs to reduce water use for irrigation as well as convert from gravity-fed to drip irrigation were included, financed by the groundwater abstraction fees and regional government subsidies.

Given the voluntary nature of the Souss aquifer contract, it was challenging to get some stakeholders to participate—particularly small-scale farmers. Though many parties signed the aquifer contract, not everyone signed the actionable framework agreement.  Additionally, many of professional farmers’ associations who did sign tended to do so for specific agreements that concerned them the most or, that wouldn’t impact them negatively.  Export-minded large-scale farmers have their own interests and strong influence, which can undermine small farmers who remain on the receiving end of water conflicts.

The implementation of the Souss aquifer contract was also challenged by the lack of consensus between agricultural, water, and finance ministers, combined with poor enforcement of the water law; these conditions rendered the oversight and management of groundwater resources by the River Basin Agency (RBA) difficult. The voluntary nature of user participation to aquifer contracts and the low actual payment of water fees also reduced the capacity to enforce rules, follow regulations, and collect the necessary water tariff to subsidize research and drip irrigation.

Legislative action needs to solidify the decentralization of groundwater management and clear up any inconsistencies between the Green Morocco Plan, aquifer contracts, and the Water Law.  By changing the legal status of Water Users Associations, Morocco could empower local communities, ensuring more equal engagement between the state and water users. At the administrative level, the enforcement of policies that strike a balance between a development-oriented pathway and a conservation pathway will be key to protecting groundwater resources and social equity for the longer term. Quality data provided by satellites and metering are needed to allow RBAs to define limits to groundwater abstraction, and proper oversight measures that encourage transparency and adherence to the rules will ensure that RBAs and their ‘water police’ will be able to function properly.

The case of the Souss aquifer shows that multiple stakeholder participation requires an earnest representation of smallholder farmers to avoid their marginalization and poor representation in decision-making bodies. By providing training and capacity building programs to different types of farmers of all scales, the power asymmetries between users can be leveled, thereby allowing small farmer organizations to make their voices heard. Also, aquifer contracts and framework agreements that are rewritten such that they are backed by regulatory and binding forces will ensure that increased participation by users will result in meaningful contributions to the preservation of resources.

This GRIPP Case Study on Morocco illustrates the complexity of groundwater management within a context of increased resource reliance and the necessity to find inclusive participatory arrangements. It is important to understand the limitations of any policy measure aimed at developing sustainable groundwater management in order to paint a more complete picture of the possibilities to achieve true sustainability and delay Earth Overshoot Day 2017 for as long as possible.  


Great article and interestingly complex situation in Morocco. What other countries do you think could benefit from aquifer contracts, or conversely, where should they be avoided (due to bureaucratic setbacks)?