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The Moulouya, the Moroccan river that no longer reaches the sea

For several weeks, one of Morocco’s largest rivers, the Moulouya, has no longer flowed into the sea. The reason for this is a combination of effects linked to the overexploitation of the river water and climate change.

The Moulouya, a rich river under pressure


The Moulouya is a Moroccan river 520 km long whose source lies in the Ayashi mountains of the Middle Atlas and flows into the Mediterranean close to Saida, in north-eastern Morocco. The river is massively exploited to irrigate farm crops. Irrigation is facilitated by several large dams along its course, especially the dams Hassan II and Mohammed V.

Tracé du fleuve Moulouya

The mouth of the Moulouya was listed as being of biological and ecological interest (SIBE, a type of protected area in Morocco), then it was made a RAMSAR site in 2005. Thus, it is an area of running freshwater, marine, estuarine, lake and wetland habitats with a wealth of now endangered biodiversity.

Upwelling of salt water


Today the functioning of this estuary has been totally changed. It is no longer the Moulouya that flows into the sea but the sea that flows into the river. Salt water intrudes upriver for almost 15 km from the estuary, a disaster for aquatic biodiversity poorly adapted to the high salt content of seawater, and for the soils that also suffer from too much salt.

This phenomenon is caused by the considerable reduction of river water due to the effects of a drought that has lasted several years.

An ecological and economic disaster


It is the farmers of the region that are affected first by the river drying up. In this region of the Rif, they find themselves lacking freshwater to irrigate their fields and unable to use the water from the river due to its salinity. They are helpless against the damage done to their crops by the lack of water. Potential conflicts between farmers could occur: the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture has decided that the little freshwater remaining available must be given in priority to the producers of fruit trees rather than to the market gardeners.

Apart from agriculture, it is the entire ecosystem of the estuary, to a great extent dependent on the normally frequent floods of the Moulouya, that is at risk. The biodiversity of this RAMSAR site, its fauna and flora (migrating and estuarine fish species, birds), will undoubtedly be affected by this ecological catastrophe.

Fadel Senna / AFP

An overexploited river


For the farmers, the fault lies with the excessive number of infrastructures along the Moulouya, between dams and pumping stations, and generally poor management. The most recent example is the installation of a pumping station close to the town of Zaïo upstream six months ago. It is used to irrigate tens of thousands of hectares at this point although it deprives the lower Moulouya and its farmers of water.

Furthermore, apart from these infrastructures, it is the overexploitation of the Moulouya’s water for farming via withdrawals that contribute to the pressure exerted on the river.

The effects of this overexploitation on the Moulouya are exacerbated by climate change: according to the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, rainfall will decrease constantly from now to 2050 (-11%), and the temperature will increase by at least 1.3° C. These two phenomena combined will lead to a decrease in available water resources for irrigation by at least 25%.

Thus, the future awaiting the River Moulouya, its estuary, biodiversity and the region’s inhabitants will be far from bright if nothing is done to adapt to the conditions of climate change.

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