While life is undoubtedly hard for the people of Morocco's Rif Mountains, they have access to a precious, fundamental commodity that much of the remainder of the country sorely lacks - fresh water. The Rif receives a vast amount of precipitation each year, which is deposited during the short wet season and drip-fed to the slopes and valleys consistently throughout the year, as it trickles down through the fractures and cracks in the brittle metamorphic rocks of its majestic crags and ridges to form myriad streams and mountain waterfalls.
While life is undoubtedly hard for the people of Morocco’s Rif Mountains, they have access to a precious, fundamental commodity that much of the remainder of the country sorely lacks – fresh water. The Rif receives a vast amount of precipitation each year, which is deposited during the short wet season and drip-fed to the slopes and valleys consistently throughout the year, as it trickles down through the fractures and cracks in the brittle metamorphic rocks of its majestic crags and ridges to form myriad streams and mountain waterfalls.
Without this year-round source of water, the Rif would be as arid as the rest of Morocco’s interior. Aside from the coastal plains, the only other commercially-useful agricultural lands in the country lie around the foothills of the mighty Atlas Mountains in the south and east; furthermore, none of these lands would be productive were it not for the intensive labour put in by the Berber tribes of the mountains, who continue to tend their terraced hillside fields in much the same manner as their ancestors did in centuries past.
Quite simply, mountains attract water, and water permits life; in the Rif, life demonstrates just how eagerly it will utilise even the tiniest drop of the precious liquid, as all manner of plants can be seen festooning the banks of the tiny mountain streams that splash their delicate way down the rugged, steep hillsides—while further away from these narrow watercourses, the ground is scrubby and dry, and the undergrowth meagre.
One spot where the importance of water to Rifian life becomes particularly apparent is the stunning waterfalls that lie close to the village of Akchour, which itself is situated on the road to Oued Laou, some 25 miles or so from Tetouan and around 18 miles from Chefchaouen. Reminiscent of a true desert oasis such as those found in the far south of the country, Akchour and its surroundings break the monotony of the semi-arid steppes with a burst of verdant, explosive fecundity; oleander, laurel and bougainvillea vie for dominance at the edges of the limpid, azure pools.
Over the ridge of the hills that border the dirt road at the edge of the main watercourse, immense, clandestine fields of cannabis flourish in the relentless Moroccan sun, unknown to the vast majority of tourists that visit each year. Without the water from the falls, this formidable commercial enterprise would simply not be possible; with it, the fields are thick with cannabis plants up to three metres in height, whose dense colas cause their supporting branches to sag languorously beneath their weight.
But there is, of course, a little more to this story of apparent abundance than might initially appear to be the case. A vast amount of Rifian water is diverted in order to irrigate the immense fields of cannabis that carpet the area, and the seasonal harvest leaves entire hillsides bare. The removal of vast swathes of natural vegetation to make way for what is essentially cannabis monoculture is a major contributor to soil erosion; in the Rif, the rate of soil erosion is among the most severe in the world.
Not only this, but the new varieties introduced from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe that have been increasingly cultivated in the Rif in recent years require far more water than the drought-adapted beldia varieties grown in Morocco for centuries, as well as supplementary fertiliser in some cases—all of which adds to the worsening problem of environmental degradation. Alongside this, average annual rainfall in Morocco has steadily declined over the past few decades, and there has been a corresponding rise in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events including droughts and floods.
This drought-flood phenomenon, which has seen an average of one drought per three years in recent decades, is further worsening the problem of soil erosion as it causes serious vegetative die-off in dry periods, meaning that when heavy rains occur there is little to stabilise the slopes of the hillsides and prevent soil loss. Climatologists predict that Morocco could undergo a mean temperature increase of up to three degrees Celsius by 2050, with a corresponding 10% decline in rainfall and a 60% increase in demand for water.
Clearly, managing water resources and maintaining a healthy agricultural sector will present huge and possibly insurmountable problems in Morocco’s near future; thus, the fate of the cannabis fields of Akchour, and the health of the ecosystem itself, hangs in the balance.