Are Israeli avocados exacerbating Morocco's drought crisis?
With Morocco heading towards a sixth consecutive year of drought, attention has turned to water-intensive agricultural projects that could be contributing to the nationwide crisis.
In 2021, Israel's largest fruit grower and exporter, Mehadrin, entered into a joint venture agreement with the Moroccan firm Cherdoud to grow avocados across 500 hectares of land.
The deal followed the normalisation agreement signed between Israel and Morocco in December 2020 and saw the Israeli company operate in the North African country for the first time.
“In Mehadrin’s latest mission statement, we are tasked to expand our farms globally, setting strong roots in Morocco (...) under our Global Farming expansion project,” the company states on its official LinkedIn page.
The deal saw lower costs for Mehadrin to meet what the company says is surging global demand for avocados.
Each company is investing $8.9 million (MAD 80 million) within the project’s first three years. Mehadrin will hold a 51% stake in the venture and it is expecting to reach a maximum output of 10,000 tons of avocados per year, most of which will be exported to Europe.
"In 2021, Israel's largest fruit grower and exporter, Mehadrin, entered into a joint venture agreement with the Moroccan firm Cherdoud to grow avocados across 500 hectares"
Climate change is one of the biggest threats facing Morocco, and with 39% of the labour force working in agriculture, there are huge economic consequences.
In December, Morocco's Minister of Equipment and Water said that rainfall had fallen by 67% in recent months compared with a normal year. The country’s water reservoirs, meanwhile, are only 23.5% full compared to 31% last year.
Given this level of water stress, some argue that allowing a foreign company to grow water-intensive crops such as avocados will inevitably add to the environmental crisis.
“Avocados, like a certain number of water-intensive fruits, should not be cultivated today in Morocco. However, these are political decisions that we cannot dispute,” an agronomy expert told The New Arab on the condition of anonymity.
Assuming that the Israeli company relies on drip irrigation, one of the favoured irrigation systems in Morocco, the irrigation of one hectare of avocado trees would range from 4,000 to 8,000 cubic metres, according to the Moroccan Agriculture Ministry.
This means the Mehadrin project consumes between 2.5 million and 4 million cubic metres of water yearly.
For comparison, Casablanca, the largest city in the country, consumes 30,000 cubic meters per day. Based on these figures, annual Israeli avocado cultivation in Morocco consumes roughly the same amount of water as the entire city of Casablanca for 134 days.
Mehdarin had not responded to TNA’s request for information on the irrigation system used in their project in Morocco by the time of publication.
'On the verge of thirst'
While Israeli avocado cultivation is not the sole cause of the severe water crisis in the country, for many locals, they symbolise the government’s "political-capitalist policy", even amid the severe reality of drought.
Residents, independent organisations, and institutions in Morocco have long warned of the worsening situation.
For example, the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council, an advisory institution, has repeatedly warned that water is being excessively consumed and wasted despite its soaring scarcity in Morocco.
“Drinking water is used by some cities for watering green areas and tourist projects, despite residents in other regions being on the verge of thirst,” said the institution. It also warned against the continued cultivation of water-intensive crops.
"Avocados like a certain number of water-intensive fruits should not be cultivated today in Morocco. However, these are political decisions that we cannot dispute"
Today, the extent of the crisis is so great that it poses a serious threat to the supply of drinking water to villages and cities.
"During the summer, water has become a scarce commodity sought by everyone in the villages spread across the regional areas of Rhamna and Chichaoua,” Abdelrahim Zatouti, an activist in Rhamna region, near Marrakech, told The New Arab.
Last July, local media said irrigating agricultural lands in this region was no longer feasible. This situation contributed to rising inflation last year as prices of many agricultural products soared.
The Ministry of Water did not rule out the possibility that local authorities, "depending on the development of the situation in each region," may resort to reducing or cutting off water supplies (usually at night) if necessary.
'Outbreak of drought protests'
Last week, the Ministry of Interior ordered traditional Hammams (Moroccan bathhouses) and car washing shops to close three days per week to reduce water consumption.
The announcement angered Hammam owners, who had already suffered severe financial losses, and even bankruptcy, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hammams are seen as a long-standing Moroccan tradition that provide employment opportunities for people from impoverished social classes. They offer a space for comfortable showering for everyone at a low cost ($1.2 per person), including those who cannot afford decent housing with hot water.
“Do they want to solve the crisis or create another one? Why didn't the ministry involve professionals and Hamam workers before making any decision that negatively affects our social and financial situation?” Mouneim, a worker in a Hammam in Marrakech, told TNA.
He says that his job, along with those of his colleagues, is at risk following the decision.
The General Union of Contractors and Professions has confirmed receiving complaints from affected workers, who have called for an urgent dialogue to end the crisis.
“We the poor ones have always borne the brunt of any issue in this country. They should restrict first wealthy farmers, they can afford it, we can’t,” Mohammed, a worker in a small car washing shop in Marrakech, told TNA.
The ministry’s recent decision has also banned any new projects in watermelon agriculture, though it did not mention avocados.
"Moroccan experts emphasise the urgent need for accountability within the export model of water-intensive crops like avocados, watermelons, and tomatoes"
The New Arab contacted the Ministry of Water about the crisis but no one was available to answer by the time of publication.
Last year, Mustapha Bneramel, a Moroccan environment expert, warned of an outbreak of “drought social protests whose outcomes are difficult for anyone to predict".
Moroccan experts emphasise the urgent need for accountability within the export model of water-intensive crops like avocados, watermelons, and tomatoes.
“This model transfers 'virtual water' abroad, which is an economically profitable short-term model for companies but environmentally destructive,” a Moroccan environment expert told TNA.
Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.
Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma