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Figuig and the fight against water privatisation in Morocco

Figuig: The rebellious oasis town fighting water privatisation in Morocco
01 March, 2024
Residents of the oasis city of Figuig in Morocco have been protesting against the government's plan to allow a private company to manage its drinking water.

After months of protests, the residents of the oasis of Figuig have carried their struggle against water privatisation to other cities.

On February 22, they held a widely attended press conference in Rabat, the capital, and drew support from the local civil society, including human rights activists and lawyers. The next day, hundreds of people demonstrated their support in the eastern city of Oujda.

Despite a lack of response from local authorities, they are continuing to voice their refusal to allow the private sector to have a hand in the city’s water management. 

In November, they took to the streets after their municipality decided to allow a private company to set foot in the oasis, where their relationship to water is central to their way of life.

During their marches, attended by all layers of Figuig’s society, young activists, women and elders, they called for the withdrawal of the company.

“Figuig is not for sale” and the issue of water is “a red line”, their banners said.

On January 27, in a show of force, women held their protest and marched in their traditional clothes, the Haik.

“Freedom, dignity, social justice,” they chanted. This is only one of the slogans heard in Figuig inspired by the February 20 Movement, born in 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has since echoed across the country in successive social movements.

The city of Figuig has a long history of protest and experienced intense state repression during the late King Hassan II’s reign. 

This February, the repression occurred without prior warning when the first arrests in connection with the movement took place.

One of its leading activists, Mohamed Brahmi, also known as MoVo, was jailed following the complaint of a local official and sentenced on February 19 to three months in detention and a 1,000 Dirhams fine (100 USD) for “contempt of a public official, incitement to misdemeanours and crimes without effect, and contributing to an unauthorised assembly”.

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A female resident, Halima Zaid, who had spoken up during a protest and insulted the official after accusing him of having violently pushed her, receiving support from Brahmi and the attendance, was also arrested. She was later released, yet she received a six-month suspended sentence and a 2,000 Dirhams (200 USD) fine.

Saddik Kabbouri, a longtime activist of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) and a native of the region believes the residents’ struggle is essential.

It is reminiscent of the campaign to boycott water bills he took part in in Bouarfa, in the province of Figuig, which lasted several years. This, he said, led to his arrest in May 2011 and sentencing to two years and a half in prison. Likewise, in Figuig, families are currently holding their payments in protest.

“Water is a human right and not a commodity,” he stressed. 

The town of Figuig is built around an oasis of date palms [Getty Images]

The importance of water in Figuig

In Figuig, an oasis, water has always been a precious and all the more protected resource. The harsh environment has led to a fragile equilibrium maintained over the centuries and to a special relationship with water.

The inhabitants have developed extensive knowledge on the handling of the limited water available and for its preservation, they have resorted to sophisticated traditional irrigation and distribution methods.

The system in Figuig was recognised in 2022 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as a “global agricultural heritage.” 

Socio-economist Samira Mizbar, who originates from the region and has conducted extensive research on oases believes the ongoing popular movement is “a just cause”.

“An oasis is a human agglomeration in a hostile environment. It should not be considered like any city elsewhere in the world,” she said.

“The delegation to a company of this service, which is supposed to be a public service for which the State must provide guarantees, appears to be an act of dispossession,” she regrets.

“This very balanced model that exists within the oases is already based entirely on the population who have learned to adapt and to reconcile their way of doing things with each other to allow everyone to live in this same space. All we need to do is remove the water supply for people to consider that a part of who they are is being taken away from them.” 

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The mobilisation has been sudden and strong from the onset of the protests. In October, the municipality, in charge of the management of the drinking water, led by the National Rally of Independents (RNI) of Aziz Akhannouch, one of Morocco’s top business figures and its chief of government, voted against the involvement of the company Al Sharq Distribution Group.

But a few days later, in a second vote, they suddenly approved it. Besides the decision itself, the opacity surrounding the vote’s reversal has ignited tension and prompted the demonstrations.

However, the discontent also stems from the lack of development and the marginalisation of the region, which suffers from poor infrastructure. According to locals, there are scarce medical services. 

“There is a small clinic but doctors are absent. They do not remain in the Figuig region in general due to the remoteness,” said Kabbouri.

“The residents of Figuig travel a distance of over 100 km to receive treatment at the regional hospital in Bouarfa, which also suffers from countless problems such as the absence of specialists and poor equipment, or they go to Oujda, more than 370 km away. The lack of medical facilities, he added, leads to untreated medical emergencies which can prove fatal."

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In Figuig, a city of 11,000 inhabitants which has seen part of its population emigrate in successive waves, the water table reserves have greatly diminished over the last years, as the country has suffered from low rainfalls and drought.

Figuig has further borne the brunt of difficult relations between Morocco and Algeria. The official closing of the border for thirty years and the increased tensions which led to the absence of diplomatic relations since 2021 have further isolated the region.

In March 2021, Algeria suddenly denied entrance to farmers who had worked across the border for generations to cultivate dates.

Besides its geographic specificity, the hardships experienced by the people of Figuig speak to other parts of the country. Over the last years, several protest movements have erupted across Morocco to denounce the lack of water and oppose agricultural or mining projects which further deplete the reserves.

They draw entire families and people from diverse social backgrounds, which gives them a popular base, and who usually express socio-economic grievances.

Such movements erupted in Zagora or Ouarzazate in the south or in Jerada in the northeast, where people denounced the high cost of water and electricity in 2017 before launching a weeks-long movement to call for an alternative economy to mining after the death of two brothers in a clandestine well. 

This is why activists who took part in previous social movements are closely following the situation in Figuig. Omar Moujane has welcomed the mobilisation and hopes it will help raise awareness over the increasingly difficult access to water. Issued from a family of farmers, he was a leading activist in his hometown of Imider in the Movement On The Road 96, born in 2011. 

That year, after they noticed a major reduction in water flow, locals in Imider closed a valve leading to a nearby silver mine and remained on the top of Mount Alebban to keep it locked.

Despite the repression, they held an uninterrupted sit-in for over eight years to protest the diversion of water resources to the mine and the pollution it allegedly caused. But in September 2019, they suddenly had to end it and the camp was dismantled by authorities the next day.

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Years later, the lack of water remains a major concern, even more so with the harsher climate, and greatly impacts the inhabitants’ daily lives, with frequent shortages and a lack of drinkable water, especially in the Summer.

As temperatures rise, local populations face more daily difficulties, and the culture of protest grows, these social movements are likely to increase.

Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance journalist focusing on protest movements and human rights issues, mainly in North Africa

Follow her on Twitter: @RachidiIlhem