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Eaux, pauvreté et crises sociales

Habib Ayeb
Thierry Ruf

Atelier 1. Gérer en invoquant la décentralisation, la démocratisation et la participation financière

Changes and Challenges along the Northern Edge of the Sahara

A Comparative Approach

Andrea Corsale

Texte intégral

Introduction to the area

1The region of the pre-Saharan oases of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia shows some relatively homogeneous physical and human features that can facilitate a comparative study on the relationship between people and natural resources. Some important elements of differentiation, though, must always be taken into account in a comparative approach that aims at analysing an area that is almost 3,000 km wide:

  • the different stocks of water resources (perennial rivers, widian, springs, groundwater, deep aquifers);
  • the different socio-economic and environmental policies adopted by Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia after their independence.

2The combination of different resources and policies has produced interesting results and a geographical reflection on sustainable development in arid and semi-arid environments is highly topical and useful.

  • 1 The traditional French transliteration of geographical names has been preferred because it is more (...)

3This reflection will be carried on through a comparison between three case studies that present considerable bioclimatic variety but also some significant common features1.

4The main criterion that led to the choice of the three areas is that of their physical size and their socio-economic weight within the three countries and within the whole of the pre-desert belt.

5In Morocco the region of Tafilalt and the upper Ziz valley (Province of Errachidia, south-eastern Morocco), the largest system of oases in the whole country and the legendary magnificence of the town of Sijilmassa prove the antiquity of its agricultural and commercial traditions.

6In Algeria the region of the Ziban (Wilaya of Biskra, central Algeria), rich in streams, springs and groundwater resources, includes a large number of oases whose demographic and economic weight has lately turned it into the most important agricultural area of the whole pre-desert region of the Maghreb.

7In Tunisia the oasis of Nefzaoua (Governorate of Kebili, south-western Tunisia) was chosen thanks to the spectacular agricultural development that recently outshined the ancient fame of the Djerid. The Nefzaoua system is fed by springs and aquifers and, in spite of its relatively small size, is often held up as an example of economic success.

Position of the three case studies

Position of the three case studies

Source: author

Table 1. Statistics on the three case studies

Table 1. Statistics on the three case studies

Source: official censuses and data.

The oases between past and present

8As a whole, the pre-Saharan oases of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia appear to be located along an evolutional path leading from pre-colonial systems to modern agriculture but they are situated in different phases. The transformation of these old agricultural and trade powers into isolated communities oriented towards selfsufficiency, a process that occurred at different times in the three countries, was followed, during the second half of the 20th Century, by a phase of different policies. Morocco’s conservatism, Algeria’s experimental socialism and Tunisia’s moderate laissez-faire have produced various and controversial results. Starting from the 1980s, as a consequence of the world’s economic climate and because of the relative success of the policies experimented by Tunisia, the model of small-scale agricultural capitalism has quickly spread. The use of the term “capitalism” is justified by the final consolidation of monetary economy and by the importance of migrants’ remittances and investments.

9The growing disengagement by the State, which occurred in the three countries, happened in different forms.

10In the oases of Morocco the traditional socio-economic and cultural system, which managed to survive till recent times in the rural areas thanks to the support of the monarchy, started to collapse. The gradual opening of the country to the outside world has freed social and economic forces that, in spite of somewhat contradictory policies, have largely overshadowed the old local potentates as interlocutors for the political authorities.

11In Algeria the abandonment of the ambitious and costly plans of collectivization and industrialization supported by State funds was sharp and traumatic, but it was also softened, in its most negative effects, by the strong support given to small capitalistic production, which is probably going to play a more and more important role in the international trade. The agricultural development was not accompanied, though, by a parallel industrial development, hampered by the political instability of the country.

12In Tunisia the end of the early socialist policies was rewarded by a spectacular economic development, which, in the pre-desert areas, benefited large-scale commercial agriculture and tourism. The State investments, unlike Algeria, were not dramatically cut. The creation of new oases, a territorial experimentation that is going on in several areas, tends, nevertheless, to strengthen capitalist production (Regim Maatoug).

13As a whole, we can roughly distinguish three evolutional stages that characterized the 20th Century in the area:

  • between 1900 and 1950 the pre-colonial economic system, based on traditional water management, agriculture and caravan trade, went through a severe crisis. It is the “age of changes” (military defeat of the nomads, abolition of slavery, foundation of towns and modern administration, development of communications, sedentarization, education, demographic growth, etc) which destroys a century-old balance;
  • between 1950 and 1980 the demographic growth had a negative impact on a stagnant economic system; as a result, emigration became a widespread phenomenon and started to threaten the future of many local communities. It is the “age of crisis”, mainly faced through State interventions concentrated on largescale hydraulics;
  • after 1980 State intervention started to recede, leaving room to a spectacular agricultural and urban development. It is the “age of revival”, characterized by the success of agrarian capitalism, by the spread of small-scale private water management and by the irruption of tourism.
  • 2 On water issues in the oases: H. Attar and H. Faraj (1985); Belguidoum (2002); S. J. Bisson (1994) (...)

14This apparently optimistic picture hides environmental problems and challenges that cause widespread concern but are still rather underestimated by the public authorities and often deliberately neglected2.

The local scale

15These themes become clearer and more concrete when taken down to the local scale:

  1. the Tafilalt region (Morocco) is still characterized by the considerable political influence of local notables, religious authorities and village assemblies. Capitalist development, desired by the younger generations, is hampered by the lack of a real agrarian reform, by smallholding and by the prevalence of traditional water management. Due to the lack of policies able to fully answer the social expectations, water use tends to be uncontrolled and causes serious environmental problems, even though the availability of renewable water resources (perennial rivers) may guarantee, as a perspective, a relatively well-balanced economic development. Because of the increasing water exploitation in the upper valley, though, desertification in the southernmost oases seems to be worsening. Population growth is still strong but the most interesting element is its largely spontaneous redistribution, which is advantaging urban centres and road axes. The economic and demographic barycentre has brusquely moved northwards and tends to coincide with Errachidia, the only properly urban centre in the region. The Saharan border, characterized by a poor and declining agriculture, tends to become a mere tourist attraction (Merzouga)3;
  2. the Ziban area (Algeria) has experienced socio-economic experiments, within the frame of Algerian “socialism”, that largely eradicated the traditional organization, but the most relevant transformations occurred over the past 20 years, when agrarian capitalism, increasingly supported by the Government, reshaped the region turning it into the main agricultural producer in the whole Sahara, fully integrated in the national food trade. Water resources are abundant and renewable, infrastructures are relatively modern. The geographic position facilitates its role as a link between the Mediterranean and the Sahara. Environmental problems locally show serious dimensions, also because of the high consumption volume in the agricultural and urban sectors, but there are solid bases to guarantee a sustainable development. Demographic growth is still intense and economic development revolves around the main town, Biskra, which keeps an absolutely dominant role. The minor urban centres basically work as trade markets for the rich agricultural productions of the region4;
  3. the Nefzaoua region (Tunisia) represents a relatively successful model of economy founded on agrarian capitalism and commercial plantations. The Government policies turned it into the main economic pole in south-western Tunisia, ideal scenery for experimental territorial systems like the new oases created to host high-quality food production. Nefzaoua dates dominate the European market and local vegetables are gradually conquering the national one, also through the success of greenhousing. The traditional socio-economic system has almost disappeared, infrastructures are largely modern and tourism, unlike Tafilalt and Ziban, plays a major role, even though its social, cultural, economic and environmental impact is still highly controversial. The spectacular economic development of Nefzaoua is largely based on non-renewable water resources, a model which threatens the future of the region. Land planning, even if relatively advanced, is not fully able to restrain uncontrolled water use, yet. Demographic growth is quickly decreasing. Since there is not a single dominant pole, the economy revolves around the three centres of Kebili, Douz and Souk Lahad, creating a dynamic system of great interest5.

16These three case studies are traditionally affected by a development delay when compared to the respective national averages, but this delay has quickly decreased over the past 20 years.

Strengths and weaknesses

17Small-scale agrarian capitalism seems to be the way towards success for the pre-Saharan regions. The pre-desert belt of the Maghreb is now a dynamic and active space, which never hosted such a large population in the past. The changes, compared to a pre-colonial age characterized by subsistence economy and demographic stagnation, are very impressive. Population grows and distributes differently, concentrating in those areas (towns and main roads) that facilitate an ideal escape from the deprivation experimented during most of the 20th Century. Physical isolation diminishes, migrations and cultural exchanges multiply, towns grow spreading new lifestyles and new consumption habits. New professions arise together with new relationships between social groups. Agriculture, benefiting from important private investments mostly deriving from migrants’ remittances, is currently the most flourishing economic branch, followed at long distance by the tourist sector. Agricultural production is growing and specializing, showing a clear tendency towards the integration in national and international markets. High-quality date production is increasing following the international demand, new cultivations are taking place (olive trees, vegetables, hard wheat, fodder), making the agricultural landscape more and more similar to the Mediterranean one, milk cow breeding is expanding. The traditional varieties of dates and cereals are declining, as well as extensive breeding. Following the growing food demand coming from urban population, traditional and agricultural methods are quickly being replaced by modern techniques. This process is particularly advanced in Tunisia, less in Algeria and Morocco.

Table 2. The growth of commercial palm plantations in the Ziban and Nefzaoua regions

Table 2. The growth of commercial palm plantations in the Ziban and Nefzaoua regions

Source: D. Dubost, Y. Larbi-Youcef (1998).

Sources: A. Kadri and E. Van Ranst (2002); A. Kassah (1996); A. Louis (1968); A. Rhouma (1996).

  • 6 On tourism: A. Bellaoui (1996); M. Berriane and H. Popp (ed., 1999); N. Boumaza (1996); A. Kassah (...)

18Tourism, linked with the spectacular development of transportation, is emerging as an economic alternative able to employ the young people who abandon the agricultural world, even though its impact is still currently limited to a few Moroccan and Tunisian oases. It is mainly an itinerant kind of tourism, based on large hotels managed by external entrepreneurs, with relatively little benefits for the local economic fabric. It is also interesting to notice, however, that “alternative” tourism, with all of its different faces (sport, ecology, architecture, folklore, gastronomy, spas, etc), is clearly spreading, even with very little support from the Governments, and is already playing a significant role in several communities. Alternative tourism, thanks to a more direct relationship with local population, is able to start virtuous circles that can lead to interesting examples of auto-centred development, especially through the contribution of migrants’ remittances. While mass tourism tends to overuse the natural resources of a territory that it does not truly know, alternative tourism generally gets to know the territory and its problems much better and is able to promote more environmentally friendly behaviours and investments6

19These mainly positive elements, however, can not hide the fact that this development model is hardly sustainable by the natural environment. Water shortage, which, during the 20th Century, emerged as the most serious menace to the future of the north-Saharan oases and steppes, is a difficult problem. It is clear, in fact, that the perception of scarcity is relative. In regions located at the edge of the largest desert in the world, it is obvious that local people have always had to face periods of extreme ad often dramatic drought. The shifting of sand dunes, the formation of salt deserts, soil erosion, bio-climatic oscillations are all natural phenomena, which can be locally worsened by human actions but show their worst effects only where anthropic communities settled in marginal lands. The population increase that occurred during the 20th century, associated with the impressive growth of consumptions, was accompanied by a considerable improvement in the standard of living and by a spectacular agricultural development. As a consequence, the offer of water had to be augmented at very fast pace on the initiative of both public and private sectors.

20The policies for the control of water demand, such as the fixing of a higher water price and sanctions for illegal and excessive water exploitation, are generally neglected in order to avoid protests by the population. Measures for productive and allocative efficiency are being implemented, instead. In the new agricultural areas new techniques like waterproofed irrigation canals, drop irrigation and greenhouses able to reduce evaporation are quickly spreading. Tunisia and Morocco, especially along the coast, are experimenting techniques for water re-use that lead to considerable water saving. In case of sectoral conflicts, where it is not possible to indefinitely augment water offer, some measures for allocative efficiency have been implemented, favouring urban, industrial and tourist use while sacrificing the agricultural sector (as happened in Ouarzazate and Tozeur).

21Measures aiming at expanding the offer of water keep attracting much more attention than those aiming at reducing its demand. Both governmental policies, with their medium-lived investments and infrastructures, and the small-scale household-based capitalism, whose investments have immediate but short-lived results, present high risks of environmental unsustainability caused by a chronic lack of balance between a steady or decreasing water availability and an ever-growing water demand, pushed by a quick improvement in the standard of living and by the growing economic activism of the population. The authorities do not seem fully able or willing to intervene in order to control the semi-spontaneous economic development that is taking place.

  • 7 R. Capot-Rey (1953); J. Charoy and H. Torrent (1990); J.-P. Cheylan (1990); C. De Foucauld (ed., 1 (...)

22The growth of water consumption, which reflects the improvement in the standard of living, derives from the spread of western lifestyles that originated in physical environments that are very different from the steppe, which creates a difficultly manageable human pressure7.

23On the long term, it is necessary to evaluate if it is profitable to exploit all the available resources in order to keep marginal regions alive, or if it would be better to concentrate human activities in more favourable areas, like coastal regions. These are different geographical models that are being debated and studied all over the world. The example of the Libyan Great Man-Made River, which is transferring Sahara’s water resources from the desert to the coast, instead of using them on the stop, shows how difficult these choices are.

  • 8 J. Bisson (1991 a, 1996); G. Coudé-Gaussen (1994); J. H. Durand (1988); M. Mainguet (1994); W. Mec (...)

24Is pre-desert agriculture sustainable over the long term? The answer is not sure, because water resources are heavily exploited and consumption keeps growing, but modern technologies and rigorous land planning, together with bold and wilful allocative choices, can lead to a positive answer. The case of the Ziban area, where economic success is based on relatively abundant water resources, shows on one hand that productive agriculture in arid and semi-arid lands is possible, but on the other hand it seems like an exceptional case. Tafilalt, in fact, shows higher risks due to the irregularity of a dying hydrographical system, while Nefzaoua, an extreme case, bases its current fortune on the use of substantially non-renewable aquifers. The other oases of the region, of smaller size and importance, show the same tendencies and uncertainties8.

Trends and perspectives

25A comparative approach, with a multidisciplinary and systemic vision of the problems and tendencies occurring in the oases and steppes of the pre-desert belt of the three countries, is thus necessary. The historical perspective, which compares the precolonial socio-economic systems and the present-day realities, and the geographical method, which combines the analysis of physical and human factors, makes it possible to fully understand the processes of desertification and the current transformations. Besides a temporary differentiation of economic policies that occurred during the 20th century, the model of modern household-based enterprise, and, partly, that of commercial plantation, can easily fit the renewed socio-economic activism of the population.

26This conclusion partly clashes with some beliefs that are deep-rooted in common opinion, according to which the different political history of the three countries would have moulded three kinds of society with different economic and cultural ambitions and expectations. The lifestyles that are spreading in this area, with their complex environmental and economic impacts, show the deep unity of the northern rim of the Sahara. Another myth that should be avoided is the conservatism of the oases dwellers. Young families, in fact, appear to be very open and often willing to reject traditional

27This evolution, though, implies serious environmental problems and challenges and can compromise the tourist appeal of the region. Tourism, which is currently the only sector able to guarantee a certain diversification of the economy, would push towards the opposite direction, the conservation of the traditional socio-economic system, but is also responsible, in its massified aspects, for serious environmental and social costs.

28In no case, as we could see, the use of water resources corresponds to the principles of sustainable and durable development. Weak planning and the lack of modern tools to promote participatory democracy, such as the Agenda 21 programmes, are worrying because it tends to postpone the solution of problems and conflicts.

29Even with the different characteristics and possible different future perspectives (good in the Ziban area, more risky in the Tafilalt and Nefzaoua oases), the same evolutional tendencies can be observed in a very wide area that, even if divided into three countries, still shows the signs of a millenary shared history and requires a common reflection on sustainable development along the northern edge of the Sahara.



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1 The traditional French transliteration of geographical names has been preferred because it is more used and widespread than the standard international one (for example, Errachidia instead of ar-Rašīdīyah).
On the Northern edge of the Sahara: J. Bisson (1993); R. Capot-Rey (1953); C. De Foucauld (ed., 1955); J. Despois, R. Raynal (1967); J. H. Durand (1988); B. Hosten (1996); S. Nicholson (1981); P. Rognon (1994).

2 On water issues in the oases: H. Attar and H. Faraj (1985); Belguidoum (2002); S. J. Bisson (1994); G. H. Blake (1971); R. Capot-Rey (1953); J. Charoy and H. Torrent (1990); J.-P. Cheylan (1990); M. Côte (2002); C. De Foucauld (Ed., 1955); J. Despois (1967); M. Ferry (1996); B. Hosten (1996); A. Lahlou (2000); P. Laureano (2001); G. Maurer (1996); P. Migliorini (1992); J.-J. Pérennès (1993); M. Richter (1995); M. Roux (1996).
On environmental issues: J. Bisson (1991 a, 1996); G. Coudé-Gaussen (1994); J. H. Durand (1988); M. Mainguet (1994); W. Meckelein (1980); M. Richter (1995); P. Rognon (1995); A. Warren (1984).

3 On Tafilalt: V. Castellani and V. Caloi (1997); R. E. Dunn (1977); L. Filali (1984); G. Gaucher (1947); M. Jarir (1995); R. Landau (1969); R. Lightfoot and J. A. Miller (1996); J. A. Miller (1995); C. Verdugo (1982).

4 On Ziban: D. Alkama and A. Tacherift (2001); M. Belguedj (1999); S. Bensaid (1995); A. Bouhazer (1990); J. C. Brûlé (1985); M. Côte (1983, 1994, 2002); D. Dubost (1989); D. Dubost and G. Moguedet, (2002); A. Farhi (2002); A. Khiari (2002); E. M. Messar (1996); G. Montchaussé (1977); S. Sebhi (1987); K. Sutton (1987); M. Taieb (1972).

5 On Nefzaoua: A. Abaab and M. Lamary (1985); P.-R. Baduel (1987); G. Bédoucha-Albergoni (1976); J. Bisson (1991, b, c); S. Bou Ali (1990); M. Chaieb (1991); C. Floret and R. Pontanier, (1982); F. Gendre (1909); A. Kadri and E. Van Ranst (2002); A. Kassab (1980); A. Kassah (1994, 1996, 2002); A. Mamou (1995);T. Morvan (1993); M. Richter (1995); M. Sghaier (1999); E. Wehmeier (1980); M. S. Zaafouri, et al. (1994).
On the new oases (El Faouar and Regim Maatoug): L. Auclair and M. S. Zaafouri (1996); J. Bisson (1991, b, c); A. Kassah (1989, 1996); M. Mechergui and M. H. Snane (1993).

6 On tourism: A. Bellaoui (1996); M. Berriane and H. Popp (ed., 1999); N. Boumaza (1996); A. Kassah (1997); D. Taverne (1994).

7 R. Capot-Rey (1953); J. Charoy and H. Torrent (1990); J.-P. Cheylan (1990); C. De Foucauld (ed., 1955); J. Despois (1967); A. Lahlou (2000); P. Laureano (2001); P. Migliorini (1992); J.-J. Pérennès (1993); M. Richter (1995).

8 J. Bisson (1991 a, 1996); G. Coudé-Gaussen (1994); J. H. Durand (1988); M. Mainguet (1994); W. Meckelein (1980); M. Richter (1995); P. Rognon (1995); A. Warren (1984).

Table des illustrations

Titre Position of the three case studies
Légende Source: author
Fichier image/jpeg, 57k
Titre Table 1. Statistics on the three case studies
Légende Source: official censuses and data.
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre Table 2. The growth of commercial palm plantations in the Ziban and Nefzaoua regions
Légende Source: D. Dubost, Y. Larbi-Youcef (1998).
Fichier image/jpeg, 62k
Légende Sources: A. Kadri and E. Van Ranst (2002); A. Kassah (1996); A. Louis (1968); A. Rhouma (1996).
Fichier image/jpeg, 65k


African and Asian Studies, specialization in Geography of Africa, DRES (Department of Economic and Social Research), Faculty of Political Science, University of Cagliari (Italy), Cagliari – Italie Research Assistant at CRENoS

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