Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Rare Resources and Environmental Crises: Notes on Water Management among the Ait Unzar Pastoralists in South-Eastern Morocco

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Rare Resources and Environmental Crises: Notes on Water Management among the Ait Unzar Pastoralists in South-Eastern Morocco

Article excerpt


This is a brief report on an on-going study that is being carried out as part of a larger interdisciplinary project (the IMPETUS Project at Bonn and Cologne Universities) focusing on water management in south-eastern Morocco. (1) The first area selected for ethnographic enquiry is the southern region of the Dra Valley, which corresponds to the last two oases of Ktawoua and Mhamid. (2) This area represents the proper Saharan part of the Dra Valley and is most affected by drought and desertification. At the same time, it is the most isolated and, despite real needs, also the least studied and less impacted by 'development projects' than the other four oases of Mezguita, Tinzouline, Ternata and Fezouata. The study focuses on the access to and management of natural resources--mainly the rarest one, water--in relation to the social and economic features of the communities living in the area. It is also concerned with the interactions between nomad and sedentary peoples, both in the past and today, the process of sedentarisation among nomads; the transformation of the pastoral economy, and the differences and similarities between the strategies used by nomadic and sedentary domestic units for coping with crises.

After a broad survey of the wider region, stretching from the southern High Atlas to the Saharan borders in October 2000, fieldwork among the Ait Unzar was carried out between February and April 2001 and again, between September and December 2001.

The Context of Research: South-Eastern Morocco and the Dra Valley

Three main forms of economy have existed in the Dra Valley since early times: agriculture, animal husbandry and trade. For ecological reasons, agriculture has been restricted to six oases that benefit from the hydrological resources of the valley, especially the periodical floods of the Wadi Dra. The date palm is the most productive and widely cultivated plant and has the highest market value, but other annual crops--cereals, lucerne, legumes, vegetables, fruit trees (in the north)--have always been cultivated, mainly for domestic consumption. Until recently, the most common form of pastoralism was extensive herding. Its economic and social framework was well adapted to the extreme ecological environments of desert lands and mountains, and to the consequent scarcity and irregularity of rains. Various nomadic populations occupied the huge grazing lands surrounding the six oases of Wadi Dra. Intensive herding also existed, and was practised both by peasants in the oases and by settled nomads. Finally, the valley played a major role in the trans-Saharan trade between western Africa and the Maghreb, the Dra being the caravan route leading from Timbuktu to the northern cities and coasts of Morocco.

These ecological and economic configurations affected the political relations between people of the valley. Various dynamics of complementarity, conflict and subordination between: sedentary peoples and nomadic groups; different nomadic communities; and people of the Dra and the Moroccan ruling dynasties or centralised state authorities, marked the history of this area. The hegemony of Arab Bedouin groups coming from North Africa was well consolidated in the region by the medieval period, but in the seventeenth century the southern Berbers, previously dispersed by the Maqil Arabs, gathered in the huge Ait Atta confederation and again played a dominant role from the High Atlas down to the Dra Valley. Since these times 'protection' pacts (raya) established between the farmers living in the qsar (fortified villages) of the oases and the nomads became common. The Dra region has also been characterised by a relative autonomy from the central power of the Makhzen, so much so that it has been called the bled assiba, meaning 'the country of insubordination'. This characterisation persisted during French colonisation. The Ai't Atta especially were among the toughest to resist the French occupation, and the 'pacification' of southern Morocco was achieved only in 1936. …

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