Morocco: Oasis on the front line of climate change

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Walking through dry fields of the oasis of M’hamid El Ghizlane, Halim Sbai feels a sense of injustice.

A few decades ago, Sbai’s homeplace, located in the southeast of Morocco, was lush and full of life.

Now, the M’hamid oasis is arid and has an empty feel to it. The fragile ecosystem finds itself vanishing. Palm trees are sparse and, on the outskirts of the oasis, only treetops stick out of the sand dunes as the Sahara expands.

“We don’t create causes of climate change. We just experience the effects,” said Sbai with that very sense of injustice reflected in his tone.

Climate change, together with poor soil and water management, are the main causes for desertification, turning the land lifeless.

Oases – fertile areas in a desert near a source of water – historically used to be important rest stops for caravans travelling through the Sahara. 

Camels cross Draa river, which is mostly dry throughout the year except when the water is released by the dam upstream. Some villages are half empty after residents left seeking better opportunities [Viktorija Mickute/Al Jazeera]

“M’hamid was the door to the desert. While resting, people used to communicate with each other and exchange cultural details,” added Sbai.

This is where, according to Sbai, people from the north of Mali, south of Algeria and from Mauritania would meet.

Caravans travelled further, he added, but some nomads stayed, creating a culture of tolerance, understanding and resilience.

The oasis dwellers used to rely on herding and farming – they grew vegetables and dates.

“There was plenty of water and grass. People used to own herds of goats. There were a lot of palm and date trees,” Sbai recalled from his childhood days in the early 1970s when his family still lived in a nomadic tent.

But that was also the time when things began to change rapidly.

The oasis started to receive less rain and, sometimes, even none at all. These changes made agriculture an unreliable source of income and a lot of people abandoned their lands and move to the new centre of M’hamid, just outside of the oasis.

By the end of the decade, Sbai’s family also moved so he could go to school there. Empty lands left behind were a perfect prey for the desert. Studies show the Sahara has expanded 10 percent in the past century. 

Bahadi Habib stands in the plantation, where he helps Sbai plant palm trees [Viktorija Mickute/Al Jazeera]

Additionally, around two-thirds of the Moroccan oases have disappeared over the last century, the government claims

The grim scenario unfolded all around the Maghreb region, affecting oases in Tunisia, Libya and Algeria.

While oases have adapted to an unforgiving Saharan sun, they are vulnerable to the recent changes in climate. North Africa has been experiencing unusual heatwaves and less rain. By 2050, precipitation in North Africa is expected to decrease by at least another 10 to 20 percent.

In addition, the rain has become irregular, disturbing agriculture cycles and leaving people without a decent yield. These changes have led to droughts and flash floods, which are harmful to oases ecosystem.

Poor water management is also a grave concern. In order to improve irrigation and manage the scarce freshwater resources in the southeast of Morocco, the El-Mansour Eddahbi dam was built upstream in 1972 near Ouarzazate.

However, locals in M’hamid argue the reservoir has worsened the situation. They say other oases use most of the water and what comes to M’hamid, which is the last oasis in the valley, is already polluted.

Sbai, right, talks with locals in a cafe in the centre of M’hamid [Viktorija Mickute/Al Jazeera]

As farming became unprofitable, many, including Sbai, jumped on the tourism bandwagon.

After finishing his studies in Marrakesh, Sbai and his brother bought a four-wheel-drive to show tourists around. But they soon realised that kind of tourism could be harmful to the oasis and add to its exhaustion.

“When locals were going with tourists to the desert, they were just throwing trash in the sand dunes,” said Sbai. In the old days, the rubbish was degradable and didn’t cause any damage.

After organising clean-up campaigns in the desert, Sbai and his brother decided to use culture and arts to raise awareness about the vulnerable state of the oases.

Since 2009, they have been hosting an annual music festival with a message of cherishing Saharan culture and environment. They teach children music, organise workshops, cleaning campaigns and plant trees to fight desertification.

“This land is so precious to us because it’s the last oasis before Sahara starts, and it’s our roots,” said Sbai. “We consider ourselves protectors of this oasis against the desert. If we leave it, the desert will take over.”

Sbai sees migration as the main challenge. Young and active people seek better opportunities in bigger cities in the country and abroad.

Fewer than 7,000 people now live in M’hamid – a figure around 25 percent less what it was in 1980.

“People leave the land but people are the biggest barrier that can stop desertification,” said Sbai. “It’s the same case with the houses, if people leave them, the sand moves in within 15 days.”

Sbai knows he cannot save the oasis by himself.

“We cannot plant all M’hamid. We cannot bring water to the whole oasis. We cannot clean it all. We can only make some noise and shine a light so people can see what’s happening.”

The Disappearing Oasis is a virtual reality documentary that illustrates the impacts of climate change on the M’hamid oasis in the southeast of Morocco. Follow cultural organiser Halim Sbai as he walks through the oasis and meets other residents who show their daily struggles and talk about the solutions they have been working on. 

Some parts of the oasis are still lush, reminding how the whole place looked like some years ago [Viktorija Mickute/Al Jazeera]

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