The Expanding Sahara: Deforestation in Morocco

In Morocco and elsewhere,  environmental challenges are likely to reduce  living standards. Among the harmful impacts of climate change is increased desertification – the expansion of deserts. Globally, climate change will increase average precipitation, but in certain areas, rainfall will decrease. Because of changing precipitation patterns, the Sahara Desert is likely to expand into bordering countries, reducing their agricultural productivity. In many countries, this global change is in addition to local environmental pressures, quickening the growth of the Sahara.

The Sahara Desert (Source: Enviro-Map)

The Atlas Mountains of Morocco have always been a marginal environment, as poor soil quality has hindered productive agriculture. Living in those mountains for two years, I experienced the negative impact that desertification is having on people’s lives. Poor and rural people are more dependent on the environment for generating incomes; 47% of the “GDP of the poor” comes from natural resources. Since the environment is fragile, even small changes in climate or use of resources can result in noticeable declines in standards of living.

Industrial logging, expansion of agriculture, extension of grazing land, and collection of firewood put increasing pressure on the forests of the Atlas. Economic growth and growing populations mean that Moroccans are extracting more and more from the forests that support the country. As a whole, the country loses an average of 30,000 hectares of forest per year.  Fewer trees mean weaker root systems to protect soil. Erosion rates in both the Atlas and Rif mountains are among the highest in the world.

Erosion in the Atlas Mountains (Photo credit: author)

The people I lived with felt the immediate consequences of the creep of the Sahara in several ways. The most obvious impact was the decrease in supply of fuel wood. Although most of Morocco is warm, the Atlas Mountains are at high altitude, creating the need for wood to heat homes during the winter. Large snowstorms often hit my village, dumping more than a foot of snow at a time. In one nearby village, the small forest cover had been completely removed; people were reduced to burning scrub bushes to keep warm. In my village, the nearest remaining trees were over an hour away by donkey ride. Every week, my host father would go out to collect firewood to heat our home. He would ride his mule for an hour to the west, where the forest still grew, to find a tree and cut down its branches to bring back home. My host father was 73 years old and the weekly wood collections tested his health and physical abilities. One day he was several hours late coming home; my host mother and I went out into the darkness, yelling his name until we found him, limping and delirious with exhaustion.

Another obvious impact of desertification is the decline in productivity of agriculture and grazing. Many people in the Atlas Mountains rely on raising goats and sheep for income. Herders feed animals in the mountains and bring them to cities to sell to bigger markets. However, as the soil runs off the mountains and into the rivers, grass does not grow as quickly and the land cannot support large herds without further expanding grazing areas.

Reduced forest cover also increases the frequency and severity of floods since rainwater runs directly off of the soil into riverbeds instead of slowly percolating through ground cover. Even mild rainstorms lead to significant floods. Several times a year, floods would make roads impassable, isolating our mountain communities from the rest of the world. Floods would also wash out fields and damage farmers’ crops.

The people of the Atlas Mountains and Morocco can contribute little to mitigating climate change. Morocco ranked 71st in greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, responsible for about 0.1% of global emissions.

If Morocco is to adapt to climate change and the expansion of the Sahara, it must invest in natural ecosystems that can reduce its impact. Instead, a growing population and standards of living are putting increased pressure on the environment, escalating its degradation. For instance, the price of meat is high, creating an incentive for herders to increase the size of their flocks.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was tasked with finding solutions to my communities’ problems and environmental concerns. As much as people wanted to protect natural resources, they depended on activities that harmed the environment for their short-term wellbeing. There were also significant problems organizing collective action. Even if my host family reduced the size of their flock or the amount of wood they harvested for fuel, these sacrifices would mean nothing if others did not make similar commitments. Without strong environmental institutions, it is nearly impossible to change behavior.

Another Peace Corps volunteer and I worked on reducing deforestation driven by local businesses. Public baths – hammams – were responsible for approximately 30% of deforestation as they used wood to heat their water. This may seem like a lot of wood just for public baths, but hammams are an important communal institution in Morocco.

We tried to appeal to the economic interests of the hammam owners. An ultra-efficient boiler developed by the Germany Agency for Technical Cooperation would reduce fuel wood consumption by up to 80% compared with existing hammam boilers. Since fuel wood was expensive relative to the cost of the boiler, we estimated that hammam owners would recoup their investment within 6-12 months. This seemed like a winning strategy for reducing pressure on forests, but we had a surprisingly hard time convincing hammam owners that they should invest in the efficient boilers. There was skepticism over the new technology and, as already successful businessmen, hammam owners had little incentive to upset a profitable business model. After a year of talking with owners, we convinced one hammam owner to purchase the boiler as a demonstration project for other owners.

It was a start, but hardly a solution. I am not optimistic about Morocco’s ability to improve environmental management and respond to desertification. With its already fragile environment, it is particularly vulnerable to the changing climate. Increasing local pressures will only exacerbate the problem. To really respond to this challenge, Morocco will need to increase the capacity of the institutions that manage natural resources; without collective action, private, short-term interests will continue to drive desertification and undermine the country’s long-term viability.