Business & Economy

Watermelons consume more water than people

By Fatima Zohra Bouaziz

Rabat, Nov 4 (efe-epa).- Moroccan agriculture, which has always been one of the country’s key export industries, has seen a boom in recent years but at a cost in water resources for the semi-arid country.

Some products such as watermelons consume more water per unit than a person.

The country adopted its ambitious Green Morocco Plan in 2008 and prioritized agriculture for export, an undeniable success but one that has not succeeded in reversing the country’s dependence on rain, according to experts.

Morocco’s High Commission for Planning, which distributes fundamental macroeconomic figures, recently highlighted the fact that agriculture consumes 87 percent of the country’s annual water resources.

The southern regions of Souss and Draa suffer the most water stress with an arid and semi-arid climate, traditional agriculture coexists with more modern and highly water-demanding techniques.

One of the most striking examples is the cultivation of watermelons in the southern province of Zagora, where the date palm has been grown for centuries and survives on little water.

Ibrahim Rizkou, vice-president of the Zagora branch of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, says “alien” crops such as watermelons are the main reason for a drinking water crisis in the area, which experienced “thirst protests” over water cuts in 2017.

“We are exporting water to Europe,” he tells Efe.

Jamal Akchbabe, president of the Association of Friends of the Environment in Zagora, denounces the expansion of areas destined for watermelon introduced with the Green Morocco Plan which has risen from 400 to 15,000 hectares in 12 years.

“One hectare of watermelon consumes 6,000 cubic meters of water per year. While some enjoy the sweetness of a watermelon, here there are others who can’t find water to drink,” he laments.

Although watermelons were profitable for farmers in the early years, the “abusive and arbitrary” exploitation of the crop has increased the salinity of the soil, reducing the quality and quantity that can be produced.

This has seen farmers move their watermelon fields to Tata, a region that is equally arid and susceptible to over-exploitation.

Morocco exported 241,000 tonnes of watermelons in the 2019-20 season, 44 percent more than the previous period and is among the top 10 producers in the world.

A recent report by Amal Ennabih, a researcher at the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, warned that the government’s irrigation policy may have deepened social inequalities and made Morocco more vulnerable to climate change, putting the country’s food and water security at risk.

He questions current water management policies for addressing problems that are structural within emerging and short-term plans.

“Water stored through multiple and expensive hydraulic systems is exported mainly in the form of citrus and other fruits and vegetables,” he says as an example.

Morocco suffered its third consecutive year of drought in 2020 with the country’s 140 reservoirs at 39 percent capacity.

This figure drops to 12 percent at the Youssef Ben Tachfine dam in the southern region of Souss which is at the forefront of agricultural production.

There are already several towns in the area which have seen nighttime water cuts since 3 October.

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