Acequia Roots: Morocco

Fountains flow freely through the in-tact medina water systems built by Andalusians in Tetouan, Morocco

Andalusians of Morocco engineered irrigation systems over a thousand years ago that had a profound influence on agriculture through Spain and the Americas. Farms interlaced with irrigation ditches known as Acequias still flourish by directing water through ancient canal systems into fields. The water floods the fields and in turn, saturates the soil and seeps back into the ground to replenish aquifers that feed springs and rivers downstream. Because water is pulled from rivers and directed across surrounding fields, it broadens the alluvial plain to support wildlife corridors in a rare example of farming that actually benefits the natural world. Most importantly, the essential resource of water is held in the commons. It is said that “Water is life” and in an age where we are increasingly confronted by water privatization, we may look towards sacred Maghrebi feelings that one may own water…it is a resource to be shared by all. The social structure of the Acequias is such that water is maintained and shared between the people who use it, and is a prime example of a functional community centered practice which provides nourishment to local citizens.

Acequias were installed by Moroccan farmers throughout al Andalus, now known as Spain, and the same systems were carried by the Spanish to the Americas in the 16th century. Lee Lee & Thatcher Gray are a mother/son artist team from Taos, New Mexico; a southwestern US state located in the Rocky Mountain steppe. An artist residency at Green Olive Arts in Tetouan provided the space to examine the origins of this important traditional practice and they were delighted at discovering the commonalities between the two steppe ecologies. They both grew up irrigating with ‘grandpa’ Peter Thatcher Leonard, master irrigator of ranchland in the Blue River Valley in Colorado. Together, the three generations tend a portion of the 300-year-old Los Lovatos ditch system, one of five active Acequias in Taos, and part of nearly 700 Acequia networks across the region. The New Mexico Acequia Association recognizes the sacred nature of the practice and promotes it as a time-tested solution to counter the desertification caused by climate change. In contrast to the functional system in New Mexico, when farmers stopped using Acequias in the neighboring state of Arizona, many of their rivers simply went dry. The University of New Mexico completed a study that demonstrates that the use of Acequias in the upper Rio Grande Valley, where Taos is located, is what keeps the Rio Grande flowing.

Steppe ecologies share a similar hydraulic flow that is found both in the Rocky Mountain west as well as in the Rif and Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Unfortunately, in the name of ‘modernization’ Morocco is suffering fragmentation of their ancient canal systems. Drip irrigation systems are being promoted by outsiders as good for dryland farming. While drip irrigation serves a purpose in some contexts, it is causing available water in Morocco to be thrown off balance. The problem is that aquifers are pumped dry to fill the drip lines, but this method does not provide enough surface water to saturate the ground and replenish underground reservoirs. When water is pumped out of aquifers to be used in irrigation, it is saturated with salts and minerals which deplete the soil, making it less fertile. Date trees are already suffering because of the high mineral content from pumped water. There is also a problem of scale. Almonds are a traditional crop, for example, but historically each farm had only a few trees growing in the wettest area. They were not grown as monocrop orchards consisting of hundreds of trees. Almonds are thirsty and need more water than is available when grown at this scale. Apparently, the influence of implementing modern drip systems is coming from external sources who benefit from the export of these water intense crops. European markets provide a demand for cash crops, which in the short term is a boon for farmers. In the long term, however, Morocco will face severe water shortages if aquifers are emptied. When crops provide for consumers outside of Morocco, it decreases availability of locally produced food for Moroccans while depleting the essential resource of water. The influence from drip irrigation ‘experts’ is extractive and unsustainable.

True expertise withstands the test of time. As Northern Africa currently faces historic drought conditions, it is important for Moroccans to look towards their own heritage; one that has had an extraordinary and widespread influence on dryland farming. Drought conditions come and go. Understanding how to maintain a sustainable amount of water through dry periods is evidence on where to find the real experts of cultivating dryland steppe ecologies. Acequias have withstood the test of time and if properly maintained, will provide local food security for generations to come.

Explore ‘séquia in the Rif & Atlas steppes

During this residency, we learned how sacred this practice is for Moroccans in regards to tending the natural world instead of seeing it as our dominion from which to simply extract resources. We are inspired by the community minded nature of sharing water is for farmers here, delighted at the familiarity of the philosophy surrounding Acequias. Somehow, over a thousand years and an ocean between, the primary intentions of Acequias has remained in-tact.

Urban Acequia: A walk along the Oued Martil

Zarka: A walk up the Blue River Valley

Printmaking at Green Olive Arts

Talassemtane National Park: A walk around the Rif Mountains

Chefchaouen: The Blue Pearl

The Fountains of Fez