MESA Banner
Waiting for Water: Negotiating Water, Land, and Life in Morocco

Panel VII-12, sponsored byAmerican Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
In the Anti-Atlas village of Douar Tinmar, the olive trees are dying. The canal irrigation systems and mountain spring have gone dry since the last significant rain in 2014. This is not the first time Morocco has experienced a decade-long drought. It is common to hear the phrase: water is life (al-mā’ al-ḥayāt or aman iman) and to view rain as a blessing. However, within the global climate crisis, rapid urbanization, and increased agriculture and water usages, the experience of waiting for water has intensified. It is no longer a question of when the water will come, but if it will return and will it be enough. To examine how Moroccans negotiate the complexities of water, this panel draws on fieldwork in archaeology, development, history, film, and religious studies. Our first panelist turns to the Draa Valley oases to ask: “Why are farmers growing watermelons, a water intensive crop, in a drought?” In following watermelon seeds from global breeding companies to the farmers who sow them in the pre-Saharan soil, this paper demonstrates how the flow of water in Morocco is tied to land and development policy. Our second panelist builds on the role of water disputes in shaping agricultural community, trade, and ire, analyzing the contradicting claims to water usage put forth by orchard and grain mill owners in 19th-century Fez. The third panelist examines how water is perceived as a benefit (rizq) from God and a confirmation of saintly authority. Water circulates as a blessing within the immaterial and material traces of sainthood in Morocco, investing local religious institutions with the power to manage water distribution. Fourthly, drawing on ethnoarchaeological fieldwork on the ancient canal (qanat) system known as the khettara in southern Morocco, our next panelist considers the role of water as a network and what happens to communities when that network is abandoned or modified. As the physical structure of the khettara is eroded, the complex social systems that rely on it to live in harsh arid and semi-arid climates face disruption. We conclude our panel with a screening of the film Water in the Desert, an experiment in combining sensory ethnography with historical research through the embodied experience of water. If we are to understand the phrase “water is life,” we must also follow the ways in which water moves and is shaped by places, people, and beliefs within Morocco and the wider world.
Media Arts
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Toward the end of the thirteenth century, a drought settled on the Tafilalt oasis. Desperate, tribesmen from the oasis embarked on the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca. In Mecca, they hoped to receive the baraka (blessings) of a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. When they arrived in Mecca, they sought admittance to the presence of an ‘Alawī sharīf, who was a descendant of the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet, ‘Alī ibn Ṭālib. They asked him for intercession in the drought strangling their date palms. The sharīf promised them one of his sons. To choose, he turned to each of his sons and asked them how he would treat a man who acted rudely versus one who acted with goodness. Only the last, the youngest son, responded that he would treat a man with goodness, regardless of how the man treated him first. His answer pleased his father—this was the son he would send. The Tafilalt tribesmen returned to their home with the sharīf’s son (Ḥassan al-Dakhil). As the sharīf’s son entered the Tafilalt, the rains came. In Morocco, water is perceived as a benefit (rizq) from God and a confirmation of saintly authority. This narrative, one of many water miracles attributed to saints in written and oral hagiographies, links the physical place of the Tafilalt within the space of saintly authority. It enacts the origin story for the ruling ‘Alawite family, rooting their political powers in the baraka bestowed upon them as descendants of the prophet (shurafā’) and friends of God (awliyā’). In this presentation, I examine the ways in which water miracles entwine sainthood and saints within the Moroccan landscape. By drawing on written and oral hagiographies as well as fieldwork among rural Sufi institutions in Southern Morocco, I consider the ways in which water narratives are used to signify not only spiritual power but also work to increase social and political capital. Historically and still today, Sufi institutions (ribāṭ and zāwīya), which are often strategically located near a river or irrigation canal, may be endowed with land rights, giving them domain over the water that flows through it. Water circulates as a blessing within the immaterial and material traces of sainthood, yet it also carries a worldly reward, investing local religious institutions with the power to manage water distribution and act as political and societal brokers in land disputes.
  • With the growing pressure of climate change threatening many desert communities around the globe, it is crucial to explore ways to help people in these areas not only survive desertification and drought but thrive in the modern world. In many countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, there has been a focus on returning to traditional forms of technology. One of these focuses has been on a 3,000-year-old irrigation system known widely as the qanat (locally as karez, galeria, aflaj, foggara, khettara, and kanerjing), which can be found in at least 34 countries around the world. In Morocco, there are around 2,500 khettara systems spread throughout 500 communities. These ancient irrigation systems allowed for settlement and agricultural production throughout the Sahara, Anti and Middle Atlas, and even the large city of Marrakech. In the past century, the qanat system has been experiencing global abandonment. In Morocco, this loss has been drastic, with only 15-20% of the khettara systems still in use. This rapid abandonment of the khettara, coupled with extreme climate change, has resulted in mass emigration from many communities which relied heavily on these traditional irrigation systems. With this loss of community comes a loss of culture, history, language, and way of life that is intrinsically tied to these regions. Those who remain face the daunting environmental, economic, and cultural challenges of a rapidly changing world. This project focused on the underlying causes of abandonment of the khettara in Morocco. Around 300 active and inactive khettara systems throughout 75 communities in Anti-Atlas were surveyed using ethnoarchaeological methods. The communities surveyed represent various historical backgrounds, social systems, languages, landscapes, and environmental attributes. Despite the many differences, the narratives of abandonment of the khettara told one unifying story. The abandonment of the khettara is a result of climatic changes, introduction of modern technology, and rapidly changing social values. Furthermore, the historical use of the khettara relied on a balance of communal versus individual values, state versus local authority, and traditional versus modern technology. The khettara system is not simply a physical structure but is intertwined within a complex cultural and social network that has allowed for life in the desert for thousands of years. This presentation will consider the current implications and future ramifications of the abandonment of the khettara system across Morocco.
  • How would one describe the sensation of water? It’s clear, and it has no smell. We know that it is wet, but humans do not actually have any sensory receptors for wetness. And yet, we need it to survive, and it’s a resource that is dwindling in many different parts of the world. These elements make water a fascinating sensory experience rich with meaning based on cultural and personal experience. The same could be said of images in film. Scholars in the field have long held that the meaning we make from images both guides the way we see things and can become an obstacle in understanding the world around us. From this idea has sprung a growing subcategory of documentary called “sensory ethnography.” This subgenre has recently appeared in response to the ways in which anthropology has historically represented its subjects. Sensory ethnography, unlike more traditional forms of documentary, pays special attention to the ways that the audience’s sensory experiences of a film help create meaning out of that film. And yet, sensory ethnography is not known for its ability to accurately represent things like scientific or historical research, which in film commonly rely on things like voiceover narration and visual information design. Water in the Desert, a short student film, represents an experiment in combining sensory ethnography with the historical and scientific information associated with the khettara irrigation system in Morocco. The film explores the experience of water in the desert for a budding archaeologist and the communities with which she interacts over the course of her research on the khettara. Perhaps through the critical practice methodology demonstrated by films like Water in the Desert, can we begin to experience science and history in a more sensory way: as less concrete than exploratory and sensual, and as curiosity and empathy embodied. And while the success of this experiment is open to audience interpretation (which is encouraged at the conclusion of the film); as scholars, artists, and consumers of media, we must begin to interrogate the sensations of cultural exploration that the camera is truly able to capture.
  • Southeast Morocco is facing a water crisis. The date palm oases that mark the Draa Valley in the Province of Zagora are brittle and dry after several years of below average rainfall and reduced dam releases. Under these conditions, farmers’ ability to produce household cereals, vegetables, and dates is drastically reduced. At the same time, the production of watermelon for export continues to increase since their introduction to the region in 2007 precipitated by the country’s agriculture modernization. This paper examines southeastern Morocco’s transition to watermelon production through the testimonies of residents farming the Feija Plain in Zagora. These accounts of “living on luck” are contextualized by an analysis of the marketing strategies of seed companies and the country’s agriculture strategy to understand the larger processes that put hybrid watermelon seeds in farmers’ hands. The efforts of local authorities to restrict watermelon growing and rationalize water usage are undermined by the country’s rural development approach which has led to the settlement of collective rangeland and distribution of subsidized irrigation equipment for watermelon production. Truly addressing water scarcity in the region requires reevaluating the country’s agriculture strategy and engagement with marginalized communities in the rural periphery.
  • In summer of 2019, the Moroccan Ministry of the Interior announced that collective herding lands in a Atlas Mountain town would be leased for agricultural production. The lands would continue to belong to an ‘Ethnic Collective’ recognized as the lands’ legal owner during the French Protectorate (Bouderbala 1996), but the leasing would prevent shepherds from grazing on rangeland commons; instead small monthly payments would be provided to rights-holders from its rent. Despite the effective privatization of the lands (Mahdi 2014), some in the community hoped this leasing might enable more ‘equal’ access to the commons, offering not only equality of opportunity (Robbins 1994) in a context of growing local wealth inequality – where cash-poor rights-holders had largely been unable to benefit from their inheritance without capital to invest in industrial feeds and other inputs – but offering uniform ‘shares’ in the form of rent payments. What’s more, following years of activism by disenfranchised women rights-holders (soulaliyate) across Morocco, a 1919 collective land law was amended to require women to benefit from compensation in the case of the sale or lease of lands (Berriane 2015) as individuals. These payments would be received by daughters as well as sons: in shares equal to those of their brothers. Three years later, however, after numerous attempts to source adequate groundwater resources, the plan was abandoned. In contrast with ongoing efforts to divide and individually title Moroccan collective lands (Balgley and Rignall 2021), these commons were instead slated to be the site of numerous collective income-generating schemes, accessible only to rights-holders of the lands. This paper uses this failed privatization and the discourse around it as the grounds for an extended case analysis (van Velson 1967) to examine the contested nature of collective ‘rights’ - as access to the means of production, to secured income, or to waged labor opportunities. In doing so, it considers tensions between collective rights as an inherited property to be used at will, or as ‘earned’ through collective belonging and participation.
  • From Max Weber, comparative urban studies have posited that there is something distinct about cities and urban life, a premise that while productive has tended to isolate the city behind the walls from its broader social, geographical, and ecological context. Though not expressly Weberian, French scholars of the Maghreb during the colonial era also assumed a neat division between urban life and that of the tribes beyond the walls. Water allows us to interrogate this division to better understand the workings and experience of urban life. Like most of Morocco, Fez suffered drought between 1881 and 1883, which in the city sparked a particular crisis: the Oued (river) Fez, the lifeblood of the city, had run dry. Fessis appealed to sultan Hassan I (r. 1873-1894) for recourse and the sultan appointed a blue ribbon commission to investigate the human causes contributing to the lack of water. Encompassed in 14 folio pages, the committee's findings provide a detailed look at the city's system of water usage and its strains particularly in the face of intensification of agriculture on the Sais plain and the growth of new elite neighborhoods featuring orchards and riads at the western, uphill edge of the Qarawiyyin slope. Two broad themes emerge from the document. First, the importance of intra-mural irrigated agriculture. Echoing Beshara Doumani's emphasis on the significance of irrigated orchards in constituting Tripoli's (Lebanon) middle and upper classes, orchards concentrated between built up areas and the city walls in Fez contributed to the livelihood and prestige of many established Fessi families. These families had the most to lose from the lack of water, and many reported that they were forced to rip out trees and plant less thirsty annual crops. Second, the water system in Fez was a guide that residents used to understand the city's geography and it had a major part in constituting urban space. In contrast to scholarship that has emphasized shared notions of the social order rather than physical geography in constituting urban space in pre-colonial North Africa, the water system bound clusters of houses, neighborhoods, and entire districts together in a nested fashion based on shared interest in how water was distributed. In this, urban life, as much as rural, was organized around the critical question of water.