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Traditional water management in arid and semi arid areas:
Case studies of the Gheris oasis and the Figuig oasis, Morocco

In places where water is lacking do people appreciate and love it most? This is particularly true for the people of deserts and oases. Water rituals, “Taghonja” (= entreaty ritual for rain during droughts), the “Achour” celebration (= celebration of the Day God saved the Pharaoh month) with its masquerades, prayers for rain, white magic rituals and rhymes, all form an invaluable register still untapped. Water is an important and inescapable part of life in the oasis. The population has also learnt how to protect, manage and enhance the “niçma” (=Gift of God) that water represents. For centuries they have created a rich culture to promote their natural heritage.

An ethnological approach to the oasis setting

The populations of the oases know the value of hard work, and their fruitful activities give them happiness and satisfaction. Their traditions in canal management, water rights and qçars are of inestimable wealth and sometimes, academic knowledge needs to make efforts to comprehend them.

Pierre Bourdieu noted in his monumental book “The misery of the World” that decision-makers often find it difficult to listen to the poor and understand their suffering, especially with bureaucracy in the way.

To understand irrigation and water use systems in arid and semi-arid regions through an ethnological approach, it is important to define what a desert and an oasis is. The desert is not an empty and lifeless area. Particularly the Gheris Oasis is not only about scorching heat in the summer (45°C in July), ice cold in the winter (-5 in January), or low rainfall (265 mm in the North and 60mm in the South). The desert should not be seen through a single view, but should rather be approached through many perspectives. First of all there are topographic differences depending on ground elevation from sea level, distance from the nearest streams, geology, type and quality of soil, and most importantly human will.

What is an oasis? How is it populated? When? How is it organized? And what are its principal institutions? Empirically, various cases can be distinguished:

  • Pastures can shelter nomads. These nomads leave water sources to some tribes deprived of their tribal rights.
  • A family of saints decided to build a zaouïa and a population unit.
  • The oasis was the military and political centre.
  •  It became a mandatory commercial route.

Who lives in the oasis? Empirically, one can mention various cases:

  • Tribes without any military significance;
  •  Clans who have lost their tribal bond;
  •  Extensive and juxtaposed families;
  •  A group of saints;
  •  Immigrant farmers from sub-Saharan Africa;
  •  Refugees, compliant populations, military tribes linked to ancient dynasties (=“guich”).

Nothing is more like the oasis inhabitants than the desert dunes. They are the result of what the wind breaks down and brings together; and populations, just like the dunes, move, change, and travel. It is a dynamic ensemble that can also be destroyed.

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Oral tales on the habitation of the Gheris Oasis

According to oral tradition, the first inhabitants of the Gheris oasis, were the religious family of a renowned saint who came from another region, historically more important. The reasons for his travel are unknown. The initial family grew in numbers. One must keep in mind that lack of food and desertification prevailed in the South from Sous to Figuig. This saint might have been on a quest for the glory he had not been able to find in his birthplace. Indeed, all the religious students (tolbas) seek recognition, be it by trade or devotion, or even through a political exploit and sometimes even through messianism.

The saint improved the soil, dug wells which required help from other hard-working families, and this was achieved thanks to freed slaves or oasis farmers (Hartanis) that may have originated from the Sénégal and Niger rivers. To live in peace according to the legend, the saint signed contracts with the nomads willing to control the oasis in order to increase their resources.

Three main entities operated in the oases: the saints (Igourramns) who were religious authorities; the hard-working families present before the Arab-speaking or Berber-speaking populations (Harratines); and the nomads, the aggressive tribes. Even if this constantly changed, the rigidity of social mobility created a closed society of classes where everyone knew his/her place, nature and role in the society.

It is obvious that in the oasis there are certain mechanisms that revolve around the water and the earth as rare goods that need to be managed properly in order to make survival possible. The social structure therefore distinguishes legal owners of the land and water, well managed according to the tradition and the arbitration laws, those who use the soil and water mainly for irrigation, and those who protect and maintain the peace in the oasis, including against aggressive nomads.

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