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Morocco’s Irrigation Revolution Against Global Warming

The Souss-Massa region in southern Morocco is conducting an innovative irrigation experiment to tackle water scarcity – a combination of solutions to counter the effects of global warming that includes the rationalisation of consumption patterns and cooperation between public and private sectors.

In 1980, 2.500 m3 of drinking water was available per person per year in Morocco. Today, as a result of global warming, water scarcity has brought the level down to 500 m3 per person. According to NASA, the global average temperature has increased by 1.1°C over the last century, which is causing more droughts.

In response, the agricultural irrigation sector in Morocco has boomed. Over the past few years, companies have benefited from public policies favourable to market development, such as those included in the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert in French). In order to save roughly 50 percent of water in large-scale farming and to improve yields over the next 10 years, the state initiative aims to convert 550.000 hectares of agricultural land to drip-irrigation technology, a localised irrigation technique that places water directly at the plants’ roots. More than 60 companies are currently working in the sector and local communities are following.

The southern region of Souss-Massa-Drâa accounts for 60 percent of the country’s citrus fruit exports and 80 percent of all early-season exports. Since the early 2000s, hydrographical surveys have shown a dramatic and inexorable decline in local groundwater, particularly in its two main aquifers in Souss and Chtouka.

The region reacted by focusing its efforts on the widespread use of drip-irrigation. Subsidies ranging from 80 to 100 percent were established under the Green Morocco Plan, which resulted in 85 percent of the region’s agricultural areas adopting localised irrigation equipment. The remaining 15 percent will benefit from a modernisation project for traditional irrigation systems financed by the UN Green Climate Fund with a budget of 425 million dirhams (USD 44.8 million).

However, agricultural subsidies and systems modernisation can only be beneficial if they are used correctly as management tools, to protect the environment and optimise irrigation. Otherwise, they could lead to opportunistic agricultural practices and water use, as was the case after the introduction of drip-irrigation in the country.

“Localised irrigation reduces evapotranspiration [plant water vapour release], but it also entices people to change their choice of crops, which in recent years has resulted in the abandonment of cereal, for example, in favour of other, more profitable crops that consume more water, such as strawberries, tomatoes, corn or watermelon. Instead of saving water resources, we end up overexploiting them,” explains Abdelkrim Anbari, president of the Raccord network, a federation of agricultural water users and farmers’ cooperatives in Morocco.

No matter how well localised irrigation contributes to the proper management of water resources, it needs to be coupled with other measures to be effective, such as the introduction of water consumption quotas, the installation of meters at water wells, and the establishment of a billing system for agricultural water use adapted to the water availability of each region.

The Souss-Massa territory is one of Morocco’s pioneers in this domain. The Agrotech association was created in 2006 by the Regional Council in order to accompany and supervise agriculture in the region. In addition to raising awareness on climate issues, Agrotech is involved in scientific research and implementation of projects related to agricultural sector efficiency, explains one of the Council’s officials.

Souss-Massa was the first region in Morocco and northern Africa to use weather station technology for irrigation. Networks of them cover a 2.000-hectare radius and record weather data on a daily basis. An SMS is sent to farmers every day to indicate the rate of evaporation predicted for the following day, allowing them to estimate the water needs of their crops.

According to one farmer, this innovative technology can efficiently control localised irrigation operations for all citrus farms in the region. “It allows us to save more than 25 percent irrigation water, and as a result save on energy-related expenses.” With drip-irrigation, water consumption per hectare of citrus fruit fell from 12.000 m3 per year to 8.000 m3 per year. With the added impact of weather stations, consumption was reduced to only 6,000 m3 per year.

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