Modernizing water management: A historical perspective

The effects of the XIXth c. changes on water and land management

The XIXth c.: preamble to the French Protectorate

It is easy, in the spirit of post-colonialist studies, to point to the radical changes put in place during the Protectorate as the source of the country’s difficulties in dealing with the current water crisis. Land management changes, the introduction of new agricultural practices, and the appropriation of water by some, indeed, did not help. However, in fairness, the form of agrarian capitalism that these were rooted in had already been put into place during the XIXth c. in Morocco. Although the Protectorate built on it, its new economic approaches had their specificities, as we will see later.

The various dimensions of the water crisis that Morocco is currently experiencing can find their origin during that past period. In particular, it is since then that the era of “the water of the State” has replaced the era of the “water of the sky”.

The year 1830, with the arrival of France in Algeria, marks the beginning of long-lasting changes in Morocco’s history. From then on, a chain of events cascaded, from which a sociopolitical and economic context emerged that was entirely favourable to the establishment of a Protectorate. As historians (Laroui, 1982: Pennell, 2003; Howe, 2005) have shown, the choice of the date that marks the start of the occupation of France in Algeria as a tipping point has both ideological political and economic raison d’etre. When Algiers, then under Ottoman domination, was taken by the French in 1830, the geographical continuum of Dar Al-Islam, which had existed for 1000 years, was effectively broken: Morocco was no more linked to the Arab Middle East. Moroccan Moulay Abderrahmane, who wanted to rescue his Algerian

Muslim brothers, realizing that his army was disorganized and badly equipped, had decided to purchase weapons as well as training for his soldiers. “ This really marked the beginning of heated commercial rivalries among European powers who were keen to obtain mining concessions, trade advantages and influence in this unruly kingdom” (Howe, 2005: 62). The mining potential (with reserves of copper and rock salt, in particular) was huge, but underexploited. If the Moroccan response to this was positive, that was mainly due to the Sultans’ incapacity to raise enough money for their country solely through taxes permitted by the shari’a (Islamic law) - that is: the zakat on cattle and the ushur on harvests. Despite the strong disapproval of the ulamas (wise religious elders), Moulay Abderrahmane encouraged international trade, in particular through commercial activities carried out by powerful families (Benjelloun, Ben Idris, Bennis) as well as Jewish families who had always traded with Southern European partners. From the first half of the XIXth c., Morocco therefore started exporting cereals, whool, and wax. At the time, British traders were majoritarian as trading partners. A treaty gave Morocco commercial access to European products in 1956 (Pennell, 2003). Sultans became more and more dependent on the elite of powerful families who benefited directly from this trade. In the second half of the XIXth c., European traders who settled in Tangiers also multiplied corrupt commercial deals with their “Moroccan protégés”, and trading activities lost a lot of their transparency.

Moulay Abderrahman, conscious that foreign money raised from commercial activities was being used by numerous local powerful people to consolidate their autonomy against the palace, in his turn, created alliances with powerful families (El Goundafi, El Glaoui, El Mtouggi -the “great caiids”). Both sides collided in 1894 (Pennell, 2003), when the sultan died. As Abdallah Laroui stressed, by then, the Moroccan State had already ceased to exist when, in 1880, the kingdom was placed under international control at the Conference of Madrid. Soon later, in 1906, the opening of Morocco to international trade culminated with the Algeciras Pact, which gave economic equality to all European powers at stake. The massive import of European products, however, rapidly killed embryonic local industries and led to the devaluation of the national currency.

Political domination was given to France in Morocco, in exchange for Italian domination in Lybia, British domination over Egypt, and specific rights for Spain in the Western Sahara. Europeans and the US promised in the Algeciras Pact to ensure that order, peace, and prosperity would be maintained in Morocco.

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