“How to manage the water resource when the next rain will arrive in three years? »

Palm grove in the oasis of Nefta in Tunisia's southwestern desert, where innovative projects are rehabilitating a place depleted by decades of intensive water use for agriculture.  February 11, 2022.

Marcel Kuper, research director at the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) and director of the G-Eau joint research unit, is studying collective local groundwater management initiatives, in partnership with a team of Maghreb researchers. The idea is to draw inspiration from it to improve sustainability and curb the overuse of groundwater.

Is there an experience that particularly marked you?

The community of Beni Isguen [en Algérie], heiress of a civilization of the desert, has developed an impressive know-how. In this region of the Sahara, precipitation falls suddenly and generates floods that can be devastating, but they are very rare. How do you carefully manage the resource when the next rain comes in three months or three years? The inhabitants make sure to recharge the fractured rocks which retain the water under the ground. They have developed since the XIand century a system of “swallowing wells”, very beautiful, which are used both to water the crops and to direct very large flows towards the basement. In the oasis where we worked, out of three hundred wells, sixty are on this model. They can also be cleaned and accumulated sediments are used.

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It’s a great lesson. Because, in general, we look at groundwater and surface water separately, without an overall vision. With fine empirical observation, they understood that water is a flow, a connected ecosystem. Younger generations have settled around this oasis. They produce with agroecological principles, with modern equipment while drawing inspiration from these very old principles. It’s exciting. Others returned to the village during the Covid-19 crisis and helped rehabilitate the ancestral water system.

Do you have other revealing examples of water uses?

In Morocco, the Bin El-Ouidane dam, built in the 1950s, made it possible to very generously water the crops of the Tadla plain. Volumes of water have infiltrated and the level of the water table has risen. It clogged the land to such an extent that it became difficult to bury the dead there, it is said. Then a great drought occurred in 1983-1984. The State then pushed farmers to equip themselves with wells and boreholes. There were around a hundred that year, more than 9,000 in 2006. A real Gruyère cheese… So the water table began to drop. There was a debate. Drip conversion was subsidized and expanded. This way of watering amounts to exploiting the water table without recharging it. In my opinion, it would have been more interesting to stay on a gravity model, but more balanced.

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