Fruitful Measures to End Drought

Fruitful Measures to End Drought


Thirty years of drought have turned the once-fruitful land of Adghagh into a place where the arid earth cracks. Until five years ago, a spring-fed river flowed through this Moroccan village in the Middle Atlas Mountains, continually replenishing a man-made reservoir. The lake irrigated plentiful crops and attracted wealthy tourists. Now, the springs have dried as the water table has plummeted. The river’s waterless ditch reveals bones and rocks, and few foreigners venture near the reservoir’s scooped-out remains.

The Adghagh villagers have farmed their land for generations. As the water table has dropped, these villagers, like other Moroccans, have drilled ever-deeper wells. But only a few Adghagh residents can now afford this solution, which becomes costlier, the deeper they drill and pump. Families must pull children out of school to walk up to three miles each way for drinking water. As for crops, most families rely on scant rainfall. They can still grow staples, including wheat and barley. But residents’ main cash crop— apples—requires a lot of water.

Last August, WPI juniors Andrea Bisson, Paige Bourne, and Daniel Hassett spent seven weeks working with the residents of this close-knit Berber village, to learn about their needs and determine solutions to their water crisis. "This is the perfect project to look at sustainability issues in remote communities," says Tahar El-Korchi, civil and environmental engineering professor and interim department head, and director of the Morocco Project Center.

It was also an excellent opportunity for students to learn about a new culture. "Over the past 20 years," says Bland Addison, associate professor of history and project advisor, "I’ve become increasingly concerned about how Muslims are portrayed in the United States as the enemy. This project was a great way to educate U.S. students about Islam and Muslims."

Early in their visit, the WPI students met with Adghagh residents. With Peace Corps volunteer Josh Cabell as theirliaison and translator, they conducted a survey with the heads of the village’s 71 families about local irrigation methods and residents’ hopes for the project’s outcomes.

In another on-site exercise, the students mapped the location of all water sources in Adghagh by walking the village with a hand-held GPS device. Hassett led the mapping effort, using skills he learned in the Marine Corps ROTC. The students pinpointed each canal of Adghagh’s irrigation infrastructure. They mapped the town’s water tower, which only better-off families can afford to use—its pump requires pricey diesel fuel, and all comers must pay for the fuel to run the pump. Adghagh’s wells—only one of which is public—can also be found on the map.

Solar Hopes

When they had finished their studies and discussions, the WPI team offered their insights.

"We made recommendations that we think the villagers will be most likely to implement," says Bisson. For example, to bring water immediately to Adghagh, the students suggested raising the funds needed to drill a deep well, equipped with a solar-powered, submersible displacement pump, for all residents to use.

Solar-powered pumps have worked elsewhere in Morocco; a displacement pump would be ideal, with its proposed depth of at least 525 feet. The submersible pump, located deep within the well, would weather the extreme cold of Adghagh’s winters.

"We believe that using sustainable energy makes it more likely that an NGO will be willing to fund the project," explains Bourne, who evaluated different types of pumps.

Over the longer term, sustainable practices would allow villagers to make available water supplies last longer. A rainwater harvesting system would be practical for household use. Residents could inexpensively install corrugated plastic sheets on their roofs. A pipe running along the bottom of the sheet diverts the potable water into a large enclosed barrel, equipped with a spigot, on the ground. With one 55-gallon drum, most households could store enough rainwater from each storm to supply drinking water for a week.

Village-wide adoption of line-source drip irrigation would save on the inefficient pipes currently in use. In this form of drip irrigation, pre-spaced emitters built into the main water lines distribute water across an entire row of plants. The least expensive of the drip irrigation systems, line-source is also easy to install.

To grow the local economy, the students recommended replacing thirsty apple trees with those that are commercially proven and less water-needy—such as almond, sweet cherry, and English walnut. "We know these trees flourish in this region," says Bisson, a biology major, who led this part of the research.

Addison feels hopeful that many of the students’ recommendations will be implemented. "Josh [Cabell] will work with a better-off family to experiment with drip irrigation and cultivating almond trees to help overcome residents’ concerns," he says. Meanwhile, Cabell and Aicha Brahimi, the Peace Corps’ director of environmental programs, are seeking potential grantors and government loan sources for the well.

While the students studied, wrote, and edited their report for the village, the people of Adghagh were busy winning the youths’ hearts. "On our first visit," Hassett says, "we were invited into a resident’s home for mint tea and Moroccan pancakes. We felt so welcomed."

"When the students first came to Adghagh, they seemed a little nervous," says El-Korchi. "But over time, their fears dissipated. The transformation is really profound. It’s a great accomplishment to see our students at ease in this North African, Arab country."

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Last modified: April 01, 2009 08:19:55