How climate change is destroying the oases of Morocco

Halim Sbai remembers a time when the date palms were green and lush. The music teacher and conductor has lived in the oasis of M’hamid El Ghizlane in southeastern Morocco for most of his 52 years.

Decades ago, he recalls, a river flowed through the oasis year round. Gazelle and sheep would drink from its banks, shaded by the dense palm groves. Now there is no steady rush of water. The ground is cracked and parched.

Seated in his home on a colorful rug, over a snack of tea and dates, Sbai says his oasis faces catastrophic change. “The droughts are more and more frequent. The palm trees surrounding the oasis are dying one after the other.”

Every year, he says, the oasis gets smaller. Hundreds of brittle palm trees now border M’hamid el Ghizlane. Part of the village is buried under sand, and once-rich agricultural lands have been abandoned.

A ‘broken’ system

The crisis facing this oasis is no anomaly in Morocco, where droughts made worse by climate change are destroying once-robust ecosystems.

Oasis habitats are multilayered. Date palms provide shade for other arable crops, like wheat and vegetables. Livestock graze on the land and provide for the communities.

“These are systems that resisted all impacts of climate change across time,” said Youssef Brouziyne, the Middle East and North Africa representative of the International Water Management Institute. He noted that scientists study oases to understand how to make other ecosystems more resilient. But the lack of rain, as well as new intensive farming systems, have endangered the balance. “It’s broken,” he said.

Outside farmers have scooped up cheap land and introduced agricultural methods that suck water away from native plants. Families who worked the land for generations have lost their livelihood and left their homes.

“When the palm tree dies, the oasis is gone,” said Aomar Boum, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles focused on the Middle East and North Africa. “These traditional settlements are connected to dynasties and histories and are left with no one to take care of them.”

There used to be hundreds of families in the village of Ait M’hanned, next to the southern oasis of Tighmert; only four remain, according to Mohammed Zriouili, a resident in his late 50s.

“There is no more work,” he said. Most of his neighbors who used to farm have moved north.

It may only get worse. By 2100, annual rainfall is expected to decline by 30 percent in Saharan regions, home to many of the country’s oases. The drying soil has contributed to the deaths of an estimated two-thirds of Morocco’s 14 million date palms in the past century.

“Date palms are very heat-tolerant crops, but their productivity may decline when temperatures exceed certain thresholds or hot conditions prevail for extended periods,” said Fatima Driouech, a Moroccan climate scientist and the vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s working group I.

The shrinking of these oases is another grim omen for a warming world.

What could be lost

For centuries, Moroccan oases were part of the trade route that connected sub-Saharan economies to North Africa and the Mediterranean. This fostered a unique mixture of Amazigh, Jewish, Islamic, Arab and African identities imbued in all aspects of the communities, from farming techniques to music, Boum, the anthropologist, said.

Oases were exoticized by colonial literature as places of respite: a cold pool of water for the desert traveler to drink from, the glittering shadow of palm leaves promising safety and shelter from the brutal Saharan heat.

But really, Boum said, “these are some of the harshest places to live in.”

Boum grew up in the southeastern province of Tata, in the Lamhamid Oasis.

His father used to wake up at 3 am to tend to the carefully crafted canals that used centuries-old irrigation techniques to bring water from the ground to the greenery. They could harvest dates from the dense palm forest by jumping from one tree to another, never touching the ground.

“Now, you have holes all over the place,” Boum said.

Older generations in oases across the country are mourning lost traditions unique to the land they once tilled, while younger people are trying to sow the seeds of a new future.

Hicham El Fissaoui, 27, who grew up in the desert city of Guelmim, is one of many who tried to find a new life abroad when opportunities ran out at home. He immigrated to France, where he lived for a year. After working hard and poorly paying jobs, he decided to come home.

His family and friends in Morocco all thought it was a bad idea. But he found a job he likes, and a way to spread joy — working as a kindergarten teacher and volunteering as a clown for a children’s organization.

Efforts are underway to preserve the oases and their traditions.

Conservationists have launched initiatives to restore palm groves and improve the use of available water, Driouech said. In the town of Skoura, beekeepers work to protect the endangered yellow bee, which is vital to the area’s unique biodiversity.

Potters meld red clay using tools and techniques that date back generations. Sbai, the conductor, teaches children the music of their ancestors.

For those who stay, safeguarding what remains comes with the pain of knowing what has been lost.

“When I was young, the oasis was like a paradise on earth, so rich in water and so green,” said Mohammed Askaren, a retired primary school teacher who advocates for oasis preservation in Ifrane, a city in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas region.

“Today, we are witnessing its degradation.”

About this story

Photography by M’hammed Kilito/VII Mentor Program. Written by Ruby Mellen. Design and development by Yutao Chen. Editing by Olivier Laurent, Joseph Moore, Reem Akkad and Jesse Mesner-Hage.