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


Introduction: The oasis setting

The environmental features of a typical desert are high soil aridity and sparse vegetation. However, the seemingly endless space of degraded soil and biological poverty are occasionally interrupted by a contradicting picture: islands of green, the oases. Oases are typical of desert ecosystems and can be considered as the result of a model relationship between man and nature, through which under the hardest living conditions vital life cycles and self sustained ecosystems are created.

Oases, these vital niches, are entirely artificial systems of vegetation and not natural, as thought by many. They are the result of hard work of man, the practical application of techniques suited to the harsh environment, the product of knowledge and skill passed on from generation to generation. For example, the date palm, a typical oasis plant, is not a spontaneous tree but the result of domestication and cultivation. In the desert, every palm grove has been planted, lovingly tended and watered. In the oasis water resources are wisely managed and uniquely transported via sophisticated techniques.   

The topographical and geomorphological characteristics of the Gheris oasis

The Gheris basin belongs to a distinct vast geographic unity one can call pre-Saharan Morocco that should not be mistaken with pseudo Saharan regions that delimit the vast desert towards the savannah. This unity is limited by the High Atlas in the North and the Anti-Atlas in the South. It extends from the Figuig oasis in the East to end in the West with the oases of Draa on the edge of the Sous and continues towards the Moroccan Sahara. 

Gheris is a name that covers a multi faceted region:

  • The mountain heights of Amdghous; Imdghas; Azaghar Sidi Bouykoub; Taghya; and Samgat.
  • The gorge of Amsad.
  • The Hamada, which starts with the Amrdoul of Tadighoust; the regions of Gheris and Goulmima.
  • The small plains of Amagha des Ait Atta; Touroug Mellab that end with the great plain of Tafilalt, the Algerian desert and the mountains of Ougnat and Saghro.

This all leads to the famous Sahara desert. 

Moving from North to South, we meet Jurassic mountains, hills, and plateaus formed from limestone and red and salty continental clay (Hamadas).

The soil of the oasis is the result of two essential factors: alluvial deposits imported from the floods of the Gheris River and human activities (irrigation, purification and fertilizers).

The climate in Gheris is Mediterranean, almost continental, with a significant thermal difference (20°C) between seasons and between day and night. With the low rainfall factor, the high evaporation levels and the Chergui winds, we find ourselves in a semi-arid area. In the palm grove microclimate it is less hot with less evaporation occurring.

Water source: the Gheris River:

“Affluent of the Ziz […] but with a valley higher and narrower than the Ziz, with which it meets only in the desert. The Gheris cuts through the limestone assembly line such as ‘Dades’ and ‘Mgoun’. It starts at the limits of the lakes in the North West and the high Todgha valley in the south. Its waters are often subterranean and reappear only as intermittent springs”.

— Bouquerel, 1953

Floods often occur after strong storms in Amdghous and Imdghas. These waters are partly contained by traditional dams and dikes.

Perennial waters: often subterranean, they gush forth as springs and they are numerous; the most important one is Tifounassin which irrigates Goulmima (700l/s in 1949, Rista, 1949).

The Case study of the Figuig oasis

Just like all the other Moroccan oases in the middle of the Saharan desert, the Figuig oasis owes its survival to water and its brilliant ancient irrigation system. The diverse heritage and complex yet fragile structure of the oases have affected their evolution. Constant evolution prevents crisis situations making oases quite durable. Their production system depends on irrigation: when the necessary water is available, agricultural activities flourish, the social and cultural balance improves creating a dynamic equilibrium which maintains the oasis in a state of stability.

Characteristics and potential

The Figuig oasis is situated in the SE corner of Morocco, 7 km from the city of Baní-Ouanif in Algeria, and around 460 km from the Mediterranean coast. This region used to be a crossroads for exchange and bilateral trade, comprising a very sensitive and strategic frontier zone. The social and economic history of the Saharan area reveals the wealth and complexity of its ethno-demographic structure, as well as its distinctive spatial organization through the centuries. The qçar and the palm groves of Figuig liein a circular basin, part of the natural topography of the Eastern High Atlas. The surrounding mountains create a natural barrier playing an important part in the survival of the oasis. Figuig is situated in the middle of the Sahara.

The climatic conditions are very harsh, with a Mediterranean and continental climate, scorching heat in the summer and cold during the winter, with a critical thermal difference between and between day and night. The temperature ranges between 3°C to 16°C in January and 24°C to 41°C in August, with a high degree of evaporation and strong Chergui winds. The average annual rainfall varies between 70mm in drought years and 140mm in normal years, with irregular distribution in time and space. It is a semi-arid area where the palm groves create a microclimate with less heat and evaporation.  

Today, the Figuig oasis has ~15.000 permanent inhabitants. Most are Berber speaking from the Zenâta, Sanhaja, and nomad Arab tribes that live together in the qçar or surrounding areas. These Arabs are of the Jouaber tribe, part of the Hilaliens. There are also Sharifian families from the orient, descendants of the family of the Prophet. The chorafa families arrived in the region in the 13th century and spread into the different qçar of Figuig: These chorafa always had administrative and religious ascendency. The Berbers were more involved in agriculture and caravan trade. The Jewish minorities all left the region and went to France, big cities in Morocco, or Israel in the 50s, just before the Independence of Morocco. Their main activities were handicrafts and trade. The integration of various ethnicities and religions (Berber, Arab, Jewish and Harratines) has created a very compressed social hierarchy.

The city is currently formed of six qçar of different sizes on a plateau (Loudaghir, El Maïz; Hamam Foukani; Hamam Tahtani; Oulad Slimane and  Laâbidate). The seventh qçar (Zenaga) is situated below the cliff (el jorf), separating the plateau from the Bagdad plain and the SW part of Figuig (Berkoukess).The Figuig qçar are of great architectural value. Their inhabitants were completely independent so as to better defend themselves and every qçar had its own laws and customs.

Figuig is mostly agricultural (650ha): Cultivation of the traditional palm grove is carried out in three stages allowing a very rational use of the small plots. The date palm trees account for 80% of all fruit trees. There are 120,000 date palm trees, out of which 110,000 are productive. The most valuable local date variety is the Aziza. Even if plot cultivation and farming are very intense the outputs remain very low. Internal migration to bigger cities in Morocco or migration to Europe has resulted in many plots being neglected or even deserted. 

Regardless of the climatic difficulties, the Figuig region has a hydraulic potential which is by no means insignificant. It is mostly comprised of irregular superficial waters, the Zouzfana River supplied by Jbel grouz and Jbel beni-smir, which is exploited for irrigation. The survival of the Figuig oasis relies on subterranean waters. Thirty (30) fresh water springs supply water to irrigate the palm grove and supply the city of Figuig (total flow 175 L/s a year, 2000). The subterranean springs are mostly situated in the upper part of the basin (the plateau) while the irrigated land is mainly to the South, close to the Zenaga qsar. Zenaga holds 40% of the population, almost a quarter of the springs and less than half the flow of all the spring water available. 



Qçar: the settlement of the oases

The qçar, the principal settlement units of the oasis, are assemblages of smaller units originally from a tribe and are the main form of Moroccan society. These small groups of people create strong social bonds cemented by tradition. To survive politically and economically one may change qçar or even oasis, move by will or by force, as families become tribes and vice versa. One’s names may also change. What is worth mentioning is that the population of an oasis is not nomadic and as a whole, is fully self-sufficient. Inside each qçar there are houses, a mosque, a place for celebrations and sometimes an inn.

The khettara technology bodes well with the scattered qçar,each having traditionally its own ruling lineages and mechanisms for organizing labour. Actually, in the Moroccan oases the jemâa of the qçar also function as “water boards” and “land boards” who enforce common law and ensure the maintenance of the irrigation systems.

The city planning of a qçar is directly related to the khettara. The buildings are oriented and consistent according to the gradient of the land, so as to allow constant flow of water by force of gravity. The water is fresher, cleaner and cooler in the upper part, close to the mouth of the khettara. This is the area where more prosperous people live. Downstream, as the water runs through open channels (souguia), it becomes progressively more polluted, therefore less desirable for both residential use and irrigation.