Home » How Misplaced Government Policies Fueled Morocco’s Water Crisis?

How Misplaced Government Policies Fueled Morocco’s Water Crisis?


Morocco faces a pressing challenge in water scarcity, posing significant hurdles to its socio-economic progress. Ranked among the nations with the lowest water resources per person by the World Bank, Morocco’s demographic growth, climate change, and agricultural demands exacerbate the strain on its limited water reservoirs.

Assessment of water scarcity typically relies on the “water stress index,” which measures the annual available water resources per capita. A figure below 1,700 m3 indicates water stress, while levels below 1,000 m3 and 500 m3 signify water scarcity and absolute water scarcity, respectively. Morocco’s Economic Social and Environmental Council (CESE) reported a decline in the index to less than 650 m3 in 2019, down from 2,500 m3 in 1960. Projections suggest this could plummet below 500 m3 by 2030, and an 80% reduction in available water resources within 25 years.

Once reliant on regular rainy seasons, Morocco now faces prolonged structural droughts interspersed with intense but short-lived rainfall. This water scarcity crisis stems from both natural phenomena and governmental mismanagement. Addressing this issue necessitates a fundamental shift in government policies and water management practices.

Government intervention is to blame for the water crisis

The Moroccan government has recently announced water usage restrictions. The authorities have introduced restrictive measures impacting various sectors, including car washing, swimming pools, reducing domestic water flow, and closing bathhouses three days a week. These restrictions are all a distraction — you could eliminate all car washes and showers and not make a dent because urban consumers account for just a fraction of Morocco’s water consumption.

In Morocco, the water scarcity crisis isn’t primarily fueled by growing household or industrial needs, including tourism, which together only consume around 20% of available resources. Surprisingly, the largest consumers, wealthy farmers, are spared from restrictions. Agriculture, heavily subsidized by the government with inexpensive water, accounts for well over 80% of the nation’s water usage.

Subsidized farmers continue to grow water-intensive crops in places that would never support agriculture on a similar scale in a free market. Over the past two decades, water withdrawal in Morocco has fluctuated between 11 and 15 billion cubic meters annually. Predominantly, 75 to 87 percent of this water went for irrigation, primarily for water-intensive crops like alfalfa, watermelon, avocado, dates, and citrus fruits, usually intended for export, driven by the agricultural policies outlined in the 2008 Green Morocco Plan (GMP) aimed at modernizing and prioritizing the agricultural sector for socioeconomic development.

As part of the Green Morocco Plan, there is an emphasis on promoting drip irrigation as a water-saving measure. The government provides subsidized financing covering from 80% up to 100% of drip equipment costs to convert large areas of surface irrigated land to drip irrigation systems. However, the discourse on water conservation has shifted towards production, with farmers often using drip irrigation to cultivate higher-value crops that demand more water. Additionally, over-irrigation practices to maximize yields become common, exacerbating water demands. Consequently, Morocco’s agriculture policy has evolved from promoting water conservation to encouraging agricultural intensification through subsidized drip irrigation. Thus, pressure on water resources increases.

This government-supported strategy, heavily subsidized, has deepened social disparities. While large-scale commercial farmers benefit, residents and traditional smallholders reliant on rainwater and aquifers face marginalization. This exacerbates existing inequalities and fuels tensions and conflicts over access to water.

For instance, consider the watermelon cultivation initiative championed by GMP in Zagora, an arid region with minimal rainfall averaging less than 61 mm annually and only two to three days of rain during the growing season. This initiative consumes over 30 million cubic meters of groundwater annually. As a result, inhabitants suffer from chronic water shortages and spend hours waiting for water barely sufficient for drinking, let alone basic hygiene. Residents of Zagora turned to protests known as “thirst protests,” highlighting the palpable sense of resentment, humiliation, and injustice among communities.

Ending Agriculture Subsidies: Embracing Free Trade and Price Rationing 

Despite water scarcity, irrigation water remains significantly underpriced, hindering effective conservation efforts. While the value of water based on agriculture revenue is around 70 cents per cubic meter, farmers currently pay only about 4 cents per cubic meter (this is a water valuation criterion based on the increased volume of agricultural outputs in irrigated land with respect to rain-fed conditions). Therefore, economic incentives for farmers and agribusinesses to actively engage in water conservation are very limited. With taxpayers footing the bill, this unsustainable model can only persist for a while, as subsidies cannot create new water sources.

Agricultural subsidies, often rooted in corporatism and crony capitalism, are frequently defended on the grounds of national security and economic benefits. Proponents argue that supporting farmers ensures food security and sustains local economies, preserving jobs and traditional livelihoods. However, these arguments overlook the long-term consequences of subsidizing water-intensive crops in arid regions, leading to inefficient water use and unsustainable practices. Political support for such policies prioritizes visible short-term gains over hidden costs and risks. Moroccan government policies have led to unsustainable development and mal-invested resources, discouraging progress and drying the country out.

Addressing aridity in Moroccan farmland involves changing strategy. Morocco must stop its subsidies for agriculture and reduce import tariffs on water-intensive foodstuffs to enhance food security. While such changes may end some farms and parts of the agricultural sector in Morocco, provoke short-term price increases, and entail job losses and disruptions to traditional ways of life, it is essential that Morocco moves towards sustainable water management practices and acknowledge the limitations of government intervention.

Embracing free trade and allowing comparative advantage to guide agricultural practices will help the country in the water shortage crisis while providing the people with high-quality, affordable food. Transitioning to transparent water pricing and open trade will reveal the inefficiencies of cultivating water-intensive crops in arid regions, promoting a more sustainable and economically rational agricultural sector.

Photo by Noah Usry

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