How Morocco became Africa’s agricultural oasis

By Dr. Karim El Aynaoui, managing director of Policy Center for the New South and member of the Malabo Montpellier Panel

With the rolling dunes of the Sahara desert overlapping its borders, Morocco may be an unlikely candidate to lead the region in water control and management.

Yet it is precisely these natural features and the challenge of water scarcity that prompted the country to invest heavily in irrigation to boost food production and withstand droughts.

Today,Morocco mobilises an estimated 22 billion cubic meters of water, and has equipped around 20 per cent of all its cultivated land for irrigation.

As a new report launched at the Malabo Montpellier Panel Forum in Rabat reveals just six per cent of arable land in Africa is irrigated, Morocco can offer valuable insights to help other countries tap into this enormous potential to expand irrigation.

One key factor in Morocco’s experience was first to recognise the importance of agriculture to broader economic and social goals, and then to recognise the importance of irrigation to agriculture.

Placing agriculture at the heart of Moroccan policies and taking into account relative water scarcity, it quickly became apparent that developing the irrigation sector was crucial to meet expected economic growth and ensure food security of the population.

To this end, the government established several key departments, such as the Directorate of Irrigation and Development of the Agricultural Area, tasked with managing water resources for agricultural use and deploying new farming technologies.

After establishing strong institutional remit for expanding irrigation, the government also made significant investments in both large and small-scale irrigation infrastructure.

For example,the country invested in dams to store water during periods of abundant rainfall, which also allowed for the transfer of surplus water to the south,where water stress is more common.

At the farmer level, tax exemptions and subsidies encouraged the take-up of irrigation equipment with these incentives focusing increasingly in recent years on water-conserving techniques.

In 2009,the government launched a new program that aimed to modernise irrigation techniques. Thanks to those efforts, the area of land equipped with drip irrigation reached 450,000 hectares by 2014, with the aim of reaching 550,000 hectares by 2020 under the Plan Maroc Vert.

Finally,Morocco has also established a strong culture of support and training for farmers, including 52 agricultural vocational training centres across the country.

These centres not only provide instruction to farmers in how to use various irrigation systems, but they also train technicians in how to maintain and repair them.

And agricultural extension agents have been equipped with the information and training to provide advice to farmers on how to operate new irrigation technologies.

There is still yet further potential to benefit from greater irrigation in Morocco but our country has shown that it is possible to invest and deploy water management technology to increase food production even in the face of a challenging climate.

For instance, rainfall in the 2015–2016 harvest dropped by more than 50 per cent compared to average levels, yet agricultural GDP fell by only seven per cent. Without irrigation, losses with such low levels of rain could have amounted to 40 per cent.

Expanding and modernising a country’s irrigation potential can improve agricultural productivity on existing land, which can in turn improve farmers’ incomes, reduce poverty,food insecurity, and import dependency across the continent.

Water is a shared resource, used across different sectors and in different ways. So to do this, we need individual and collective action by governments, the private sector, and communities in rural and urban areas.

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