Drought endangers Marrakech palm grove


No longer.

Today, the unique and vast World Heritage site is "nothing like it used to be when I was a child," says the 37-year-old Meddich, a forestry engineer overseeing a plan to plant more palms.

An ancient city on the rim of the Sahara desert, Marrakech has been a magnet for tourism since the 1960s, when hippies dubbed it "the city of four colors" — for its blue skies, its backdrop of white snowcapped peaks, the red walls of its medieval fortifications, and the sprawling green palm grove on its outskirts.

But one of these colors is fading fast. Legions of tall, swaying palms are yellowing and sickly, parched by drought that climate change experts predict may worsen as the planet warms.

Government-encouraged mass tourism, land developers, golf courses and rich Europeans' closed-off luxury villas are squeezing out farmers from the grove. For generations, farming families here lived almost in symbiosis with the palms, harvesting their fruit and shelter while tending to the trees' health. Most now have gone or been evicted, pushed out by lack of work or tourism driving land prices up.

The pace of destruction is staggering.

In 1929, Morocco's then-French rulers measured the palm grove at about 40,000 acres — an area nearly 50 times that of New York's Central Park. By 1998, it had declined to nearly 30,000 acres. Since then, the grove has shrunk by nearly half, to an estimated 16,000 to 19,000 acres.

Water is a major problem, for both the trees and the people who have long lived under them.

Fatima Lemkhaouen and her family of two dozen brothers, in-laws and children live crammed in one of the few Douar, or traditional hamlets, still standing in the palm grove. They have no electricity, or sanitation. The guard of one of the luxury villas next to their mud home passes over a hose to fill their plastic jugs and metal basins.

"We love the palm grove, but I don't think it's for us anymore," says Lemkhaouen, 29. Local officials have rebuffed their appeals for a public well, she adds. "They just want us out," she surmises.

The grove was planted in the 11th century under the Almoravid dynasty, which founded the city of Marrakech. Its empire extended from present-day Senegal to Spain and Portugal. The United Nations' cultural arm, UNESCO, included the grove when it added Marrakech to its list of World Heritage sites in 1984.

The grove's farmers practiced an age-old technique known as "three-layered crops:" wheat and vegetables on the arid soil, fruit trees at a man's height, and dates from the palm trees. A network of hundreds of miles of "Khettarras" — man-made canals and cisterns — brought water from the hills for plants to survive in the desert climate.

This ecosystem is collapsing.

Drought and heavy pumping for extensive agriculture in the hills around the grove have drastically lowered water reserves. The water table — a decade ago just 30 feet underground — is now at some 65 yards, beyond the reach of the trees' roots and anything but the deepest of wells.

Simultaneously, Marrakech became a top tourism destination. Even small plots in the palm grove now fetch as much as $1.5 million, creating pressure to sell to promoters. The Lemkhaouens' landlord has refused to renew their lease.

"Even one century of cultivation couldn't match the price owners can get for their land," says Youssef Sfairi, head of a nongovernment group trying to preserve the grove. His association, Amal Palmeraie, would translate from French and Arabic as "Hope for the Palm Grove."

As a UNESCO heritage site, the grove is supposed to be protected by Morocco. Marrakech City Hall, Morocco's government and private partners have committed the equivalent of $13 million to replant 400,000 palm trees by 2012.

The plan, launched by Morocco's King Mohammed VI and headed by one of his sisters, has already brought the number of palm trees from 100,000 in 2006 to over 260,000, said engineer Meddich. But most of the new trees are being planted in touristic zones near Marrakech instead of throughout the palm grove, he says.

Hopes rest largely on female palms. Although more vulnerable to drought than male ones, only they carry date fruits — and hence the seeds for more trees. Large teams of street workers circle the grove to maintain and water over 50,000 of these "mother palms."

Palm trees only grow each decade, and the small ones being replanted remain vulnerable. Meanwhile, the three-century old, 100-foot tall ones continue to die out.

Omar Jazouli, the mayor of Marrakech, acknowledges that most of the palm trees are "in an appalling state." But he views tourism as the savior, not the bane, of the grove.

"From the air you can see that all the trees in private ownership — golfs, hotels and villas — are being superbly looked after," he says. Every construction site for a new villa is required to survey its palm trees and can only move them — not cut them down — if building is impossible otherwise, he says.

The king has set a goal of 10 million tourists visiting Morocco by 2010, up from 7 million last year — including 1.6 million who came through Marrakech. Drawn by the near constant sunshine, tourists are pouring in from Europe on discounted three-hour flights. Jet-setters, Paris glitterati and some 16,000 other foreigners now have second homes in and around Marrakech, multiplying some land prices by 100 in a decade.

With over 40,000 rooms, hotel space has also grown tenfold in the same period, and each of the three golf courses in the palm grove is expanding from a normal 18-hole size to a jumbo 27 holes. Another 15 golf courses are under completion around Marrakech and in the grove, the mayor says.

But promoters must pay $4.7 million for building permits for a course, and the money goes to building wastewater recycling plants. One plant is already working near a section of the palm grove now largely viewed as preserved, he says.

Jazouli concedes that the building boom is driving out farmers, but says the benefits outweigh the impact for Marrakech's 850,000 people. Tourism and construction have driven salaries way above the national average, he said, and with just 7 percent unemployment Marrakech is nearly three times below the rest of the country.

Others see a less rosy future.

"Parts of this beautiful palm grove are becoming a construction dump," said Sylvie de Gouy, the owner of the villa who shares her water with the Lemkhaouen family. Gouy, a dentist in the northern French town of Lille, comes to her Marrakech villa at least once a month.

"You can't buy a house down here if you don't appreciate the Moroccans and living alongside them," she said, sipping a glass of mint tea at Lemkhaouen's modest breeze-block house across the wall from her mansion.

But even for her, water is now an issue. The private well to keep her garden green ran out last summer.

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