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


In oases everything is about water. Its possession is more important than the land. Place names, poetry, legends, tales, rituals and myths are all linked to water. Consequently, the foggaras are much more than an irrigation system: They embody the traditional social structure of each village, enabling and regulating social interactions around this valuable resource. However, the continuing struggle for water has been the reason for disputes, conflicts and even violent episodes between individuals, various qçar and ethnic groups. The evolving societies have elaborated water rights governed by customary laws and pacts. To understand the local culture it is necessary to explain the socio-political organization around water.

Social organization around water, institutions and mechanisms

The maintenance of the complex system of khettaras, small dams and channels and the management of water distribution to a large number of plots of land and water owners required a collective organization and a strong hierarchy within each qçar. That is why the community created water management institutions:

  • Amghar Nwaman or Amghar Ntrga is the man in charge of the water police. He makes sure everyone uses their water rights, especially in summer or during the night. Everyone must respect the neighbours’ rights and turn to ….. He controls the time of use, he judges the violations or infringements and decides on the fines. What is important to mention is that the Amghar Nwaman is often elected by the lower classes and his reputation cannot be compared to the reputation of the Amghar Noufla, who is the war chief or to the Amghar Ljmat, the chief of the executive assembly.
  • Had Saym, is the call to the community for collective work, that is the calling of the young and adult men. The age of the worker is fixed at his first Ramadan (when he is old enough and strong enough to fast), after that, he is no longer considered a child and is capable of working. Another more precise technique is used to determine the ability to start working by comparing head size to the neck of an adolescent: a double length string is wrapped around the person's neck; this same string is then wrapped around his head but only with one length this time. If the head is fully wrapped, the youngster is capable of working, if not he is still considered a child. The religious scholar of the community (fqih), the widows and the members of the saint families are exempted from the works.
  • Calendars and measures: The annual calendar is based on sowing and harvesting. It is established according to the sequence of the stars in the sky that herald the seasons (lmnazel). Daily life is governed by prayer times and science can determine the exact time, for contemplation or for gathering in the mosques, or even in the fields.
  • The mosque is not only a sacred place, where praying takes place, but also the place to study the Koran, a place for ablutions and body cleansing; therefore, showers are installed for this purpose. In every mosque there is a well and it is often the deepest of the qçar. It can even be a watering place for the animals during times of drought. A network of canals often crosses the qçours and they are used for washing and laundering of clothes.
  • Traditional methods of distribution of water-rights: “Tagourt” is a word that literally means “small auxiliary door to the tent”. This expression has commonly become, by extension, the main unit of land and water, but it varies according to the quality of … or the topography, also according to the flow of water. Tagourt is also the term applied for the place where one can sow a specific quantity of wheat or barley. When the nomad tribes occupied the Gheris oasis, they divided the land in the beginning, according to the number of tribes, then by the number of families in these tribes, and finally according to the number of pubescent males. Social status is greater when there is a higher number of tagourts. The word tagourt has an added spiritual importance for the inhabitants of the Gheris oasis. Its meaning is close to notions such as the moon, luck, a good omen, useful and productive work, ransom. 


Water, organization of work, disruption and change

It is impossible to get a grasp of the social life of the oasis without understanding its conception of work. In the oasis, working is synonymous with living. Idleness is synonymous with decay and death. When questioning the inhabitants, we learn that human contribution is not considered when counting the results of the crop year, it is self-evident.

Agricultural work in the oasis is linked to an ancestral institution, the khemmassat. It is an oral contract between the owner who gives the land, the water and the production tools, and the cultivator without land, who will work together with his family for 1/5 of the production. Despite its apparent simplicity, this contract is complicated because of the complexity of agricultural life, due to the multiplicity of the products, the quality of work, the time factor, the dangers and so forth. To manage these contracts two legal frameworks play a crucial part: the Islamic law of Malik Ibn Anas and custom law.

The khemmassat and water rights were disrupted for three reasons: the change from water-right to gravitational irrigation, the wage earners, rural exodus and immigration. These factors followed one another in three stages:

(a) Colonial authorities and their intervention in public affairs, and most importantly the radical change from ancestral water property to the system of gravitational irrigation managed in the winter and the summer (Messou). This was the first disruption of the social stratification in the oases. A native of Zaouïa describes what happened:

“We had the right for 24 hours of water, from sunset to sunset. We irrigated our land and we allowed our neighbours to do the same. Suddenly, the colonial authorities and the Kaïd, who had lost his land, decided to steal our possessions. Our parents protested but were put in prison. That is when the zaouïa collapsed, our social status was shattered. However, the real problem was that water owners lost the property, and as water did not belong to anyone anymore it resulted in water wasting. What we wanted to gain from the messou we lost in bad management and disputes and even the poor suffered because their employers lost everything.”


An agricultural technician adds:

“The messou seems fair but actually it isn’t. Those upstream get more than those downstream and the land owners have more than the landless farmers. This has created problems with the cleaning of the canals. The owners wanted the poor to do the cleaning because of the profit they get from palm groves and the poor didn’t want to work for those who get all the profit...”


This was the first big social change in the oasis. It resulted from legal changes as well as from changes in the water management techniques. A local proverb says

“it is impossible to touch water without touching all other things of daily life”.


(b) The second blow to the social organization was the discovery of paid work in Algerian vineyards. An immigrant in Algeria could get more within a month than a local khemmas in an entire year. Upon his return and now with money, the immigrant usually asks his brothers that stayed behind for the property to be divided. This is the first step towards the break up of the nuclear family which leads to the fragmentation of the land, self-centeredness, and other egocentric values such as exhibitionism, extreme competition and consumption.

(c) The final hit was the civil service. Teachers, nurses, engineers or doctors were completely disconnected from society and public affairs, and water disappeared from the agenda of the well-read even if some associations tried to address this problem in the 70s. People psychologically rejected everything related to water, land or agriculture and desertification experts mention that lack of work forces might kill the oases even faster than desertification.