The way of life of Moroccan nomads threatened by climate change

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The Amazigh Moha Ouchaali sits in his tent near the village of Amellagou where the last nomads of Morocco live – Copyright AFP FADEL SENNA

Kaouthar OUDRHIRI

In Morocco’s scorching desert, the country’s last remaining Berber nomads, the Amazighs, say their ancient way of life is under threat as climate change brings ever-increasing droughts.

“Everything has changed,” said Moha Ouchaali, her wrinkled features framed by a black turban. “I no longer recognize myself in today’s world. Even nature turns against us.

Ouchaali, an Amazigh in his 50s, has set up camp near a dry river bed in arid hills about 280 kilometers (174 miles) east of Marrakech.

Amid the rocky, barren landscape near the village of Amellagou, he and his family have pitched two black woolen tents, lined with old sacks of animal fodder and scraps of fabric.

One is used for sleeping and receiving guests, the other is used as a kitchen.

“Water has become hard to find. The temperatures are rising and the drought is so harsh, but there is not much we can do,” Ouchaali said.

His tribe, the Ait Aissa Izem, have spent centuries roaming the country to find food for their animals, but their way of life is disappearing.

According to the latest census, only 25,000 people in Morocco were nomads in 2014, down by two-thirds in just a decade.

“We are exhausted,” said Ida, Ouchaali’s 45-year-old wife, with emotion.

“Before, we managed to live decently, but all these increasingly intense droughts complicate our lives. Without water, we cannot do anything.

– ‘Last nail in the coffin’ –

This year has seen Morocco’s worst drought in four decades.

Precipitation is expected to decrease by 11% and average temperatures are expected to increase by 1.3% by 2050, according to forecasts by the Ministry of Agriculture.

“Nomads have always been seen as a barometer of climate change,” said anthropologist Ahmed Skounti.

“If these people, accustomed to living in extreme conditions, cannot withstand the intensity of global warming, it is bad.”

The drying up of water resources was “the final nail in the nomads’ coffin”, he added.

In easier times, the Ait Aissa Izem would spend the summer in the relatively cool mountain valley of Imilchil, before heading to the region around the regional capital Errachidia for the winter.

“That’s ancient history,” Ouchaali said, sitting in his tent and taking a sip of sweet Moroccan tea. “Today we are going where there is some water left, to try to save the animals.”

Severe water shortages have even prompted some nomads to take the rare step of taking out loans to feed their most vital asset, their livestock.

“I went into debt to buy food for my animals so they wouldn’t starve,” said Ahmed Assni, 37, sitting by a nearly dried up small stream near Amellagou.

Saeed Ouhada said hardship pushed him to find accommodation for his wife and children in Amellagou, while he stayed with his parents in a camp on the outskirts of town.

“Being a nomad isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “I will continue because I have to. My parents are old but they refuse to live in town.

Driss Skounti, elected to represent nomads in the region, said the area had about 460 tents. Today they are less than a tenth of that number.

– ‘Tired of fighting’ –

Some Moroccan nomads have completely abandoned their old way of life – and not just because of the steadily deteriorating climate.

“I was tired of fighting,” says Haddou Oudach, 67, who settled permanently in Er-Rich in 2010.

“We have become pariahs of society. I can’t even imagine what nomads are going through today.

Moha Haddachi, head of an association of Ait Aissa Izem nomads, said social and economic changes were making the nomadic way of life increasingly difficult.

The scarcity of pasture due to land privatization and agricultural investment also contributes to the difficulties, he said.

“Agricultural investors now dominate the spaces where nomads used to graze their herds.”

The nomads also face hostility from some villagers, angered by those who camp in their area when they officially belong to other provinces.

A law was passed in 2019 to delineate where nomads and sedentary farmers could graze their animals, but “no one enforces it”, Haddachi said.

The former nomad Oudach is discouraged by “this time of selfishness where everyone thinks only of themselves”.

“It wasn’t always like this, we were welcome everywhere we went,” he said.

Embarking on a life of nomadism offers little to young people.

Houda Ouchaali, 19, says she cannot bear to see her parents “suffering and fighting just to survive”.

“The new generation wants to turn the page on nomadism,” she says.

She now lives with an uncle in Er-Rich and is looking for professional training to enable her to “build a future” and escape the “stigmatising gaze that city dwellers often have on nomads”.

Driss Skounti said he had little hope for the future of nomadism.

“Nomadic life has an identity and a tradition steeped in history,” he said, “but it is doomed to disappear within 10 years.”

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