'Little Rayan': A Moroccan tragedy rooted in social deprivation

6 min read
15 February, 2022

The tragic death of five-year-old Rayan Oram, who died after being trapped in a well for five days, saw an outpouring of solidarity and sorrow from across the region.

But while Rayan's plight moved the world, some Moroccans took a different view, saying it reflected a deep-rooted structural problem in villages across the country.

"There's no place for poetry in Rayan's story. It is a Moroccan tragedy rooted in neglected wells and water shortages in villages," Hayat, a teacher in a Moroccan village, told The New Arab

The story of 'little Rayan' and the painstaking operation to rescue him had gripped the world, with hundreds of people gathering at the well where Rayan fell, and millions more following the story online.

The five-year-old Moroccan boy plunged through a 32-meter-deep narrow well near his parents' house in Ighran village, near the northern Moroccan city Chefchaoun.

After a week of desperate attempts to save the boy, he was announced dead shortly after being rescued from the shaft on Saturday, 5 February.

"There's no place for poetry in Rayan's story. It is a Moroccan tragedy rooted in neglected wells and water shortages in villages"

Hicham, a resident in Chefchaouen, told The New Arab that navigating the dangers of wells in the mountainous region is a daily experience for locals.

Situated in the Rif mountains, the region is dotted with deep wells. Many are used for irrigating cannabis crops, which are the main source of income for many in the region.

Residents use buckets attached to long ropes to get water for their families and land. Even adults who are experienced at this have been injured in the process, said Hicham.

Most locals in remote villages in Morocco rely on similar means to provide water for their households, since water pumps remain expensive and are virtually redundant in villages with no access to electricity.

Amidst the absence of official data on deaths, every village in the country has its own stories of children and animals who have fallen down uncovered deep wells


Hayat, who was a teacher in an isolated village more than 120 km away from Kenitra city, told The New Arab that a well was drilled in the playground of the village’s primary school, as it was the only place where locals could find water.

“While a mother was getting water for her family, her 3-year-old girl fell down the well and died. The incident happened five years ago, but it’s still haunting me. I have never let my students go to the yard during the break. I was afraid someone would be hurt," added Hayat.

Ultimately, the tragedies of Morocco's wells reflect the chronic lack of water access in Moroccan villages.

Climate change and poverty

Less than 65 percent of households in Morocco are connected to the water network, according to the government.

“Considering the geographical characteristics of the rural communes, it is quite difficult to find water either through the construction of traditional wells or modern boreholes,” Yassine Oualili, a PhD. Student in Ecology and Ecosystemology, told The New Arab.

The high cost of water installation in households and the construction of wells makes meeting daily water needs for Morocco's lowest earners a daily struggle, added Oualili.

Situated near the summit of the Atlas mountains, Douar Talmentoukht is one village where the water crisis is most acute.

A memorial service is held for 5 -year-old Rayan, died after being trapped in a well for four days, in Riad district of capital Rabat in Morocco on February 6, 2022.
A memorial service is held for 5-year-old Rayan, who died after being trapped in a well for four days. [Getty]

Hundreds of locals are dependent on just one spring for their water supply, with many foregoing high-consuming activities such as taking showers.

“During my visit to the village, they told me that they only wash their hair to save water. Also, despite the snakes and the scorpions in the spring, they drink its water after boiling it since it’s the only option they have. It’s horrible,” said Sara, an Instagrammer who visits rural areas in Morocco to share locals’ experiences and lifestyles.

In the video Sara shared on her social media, women were pictured climbing a mountainous road up to the hill where the uncovered spring is situated. In Talmentoukht, women and children undertake this task daily as men are usually away in the cities looking for work opportunities to support their families.

In recent years, the water crisis has also affected southern cities in the Kingdom. 

“In Morocco, water availability is mainly related to precipitation. Due to climate change, the average rainfall has decreased over time causing water scarcity,” said Yassine Oualili, a member of the Water, Biodiversity and Climate Change Laboratory in Cadi Ayyad University, Marrakech.

The per capita share of water decreased to less than 650 cubic meters annually in the last decade, compared to 2500 in 1960, according to the latest report by the Economic and Social Council in Morocco.

In the southern city of Zagora, in 2017 locals announced the “revolution of thirst” as hundreds of people took to the streets to protest water shortages. Tens of protesters were arrested. The city still has water shortages which are exacerbated during the hot summer months, with locals protesting yearly to call for their right to access water.

"Maybe they should start by providing water for villagers. That will end the issue"

Laws fail to protect citizens

Facing such scarcity, wells remain the last resort for villagers to provide water for their households.

In a statement to The New Arab, the Moroccan topographic engineer Mohammed Rfifi explained the administrative procedure Morocco mandated for drilling wells since 1998.

“A document proving possession or ownership of the property in which the well is to be constructed, a topographic design of the well construction site showing nearby surface facilities and site features, and the agricultural project to be created if the well is in the purpose of irrigation, are the main documents the Moroccan Aquarium Agency requires to approve the start of the drilling operation,” he said.

The agency approves the well’s construction within 40 days if the drilling operation will not affect the buildings in the area and exploit the underground water resources, explained the Moroccan engineer. The agency also requires covering the wells for safety.

Known as “Sonda”, many locals in mountainous villages use the giant probing machine that drills deep and narrow holes in the soil, searching for water, added Rfifi.

In the face of high costs of well construction that start at MAD40,000 ($4,270), some villagers stop the drilling operation due to financial struggles, leaving narrow holes open to collect debris and poisonous animals, and exposing locals to dangers.

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Moreover, the Moroccan Northern Observatory for Human Rights (ONDH) has accused authorities of turning a blind eye for years to the operations of digging hundreds of illegal wells by some traffickers and cannabis growers "in clear violation of the law and against the will of the population and with the open complicity of the local authorities".

Following Rayan’s death, the Moroccan Ministry of Equipment and Water said it will mandate closing or repairing illegal wells in the country, with the possibility of judicial follow-up against the violators of the mandate. 

The new procedures have left many villagers fearful of extra fees or of losing their water sources.

"Maybe they should start by providing water for villagers. That will end the issue. But punishing villagers who are already struggling financially, this is like pouring gasoline on the fire," said Mohammad, who works in a shop in Kenitra to support his family in a small village in the Atlas mountains.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's Morocco correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma