Drought in Morocco: Satellite images reveal drastic reduction in dam

Satellite images reveal that Morocco's second largest water reserve, the Al Massira dam, is drying up at an unprecedented rate. The situation is critical and threatens the water supply for millions of people and the country's agriculture.

Al Massira Marroco
Al Massira, in Morocco, has very low water storage levels. This is a problem that has been constantly getting worse in recent years.

Satellite images of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 reveal the critical situation caused by the drought in Morocco. The second largest water reserve in the country, the Al Massira dam, responsible for supplying large urban areas and crucial for agricultural irrigation, is recording very serious drought values.

Drought worsens in Morocco and images record the evolution in Al Massira

The data are worrying and indicate that Al Massira, located between Casablanca and Marrakech, contains only 3% of the average water it held nine years ago. Six consecutive years of drought, aggravated by climate change that cause record temperatures and increased evaporation, threaten the water supply throughout the North African territory, hitting the agricultural sector and the economy in general hard.

The satellite images, recently captured by Sentinel sensors, were captured in the same month, in March, between 2018 and 2024. The same data reveal a drastic transformation of the landscape, with normally green areas becoming arid and "yellowish" in color.

"The images clearly depict a rapid change in the surface area of the dam," says Professor Brian Thomas, a hydrogeologist who analyzes satellite images for NASA. "The appearance of the water has also changed, which indicates changes in land use and the flow of the river that feeds the dam," he adds.

Impacts of drought on agriculture

The impact of drought is not limited to the region near Al Massira. Agriculture, which represents approximately 90% of water consumption in Morocco (World Bank 2020 data), has been severely affected.

Status of water storage at Al Massira dam as of March 16, 2024. Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2 L2A imagery.
Status of water storage at Al Massira dam as of 16 March, 2024. Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2 L2A imagery.

Abdelmajid El Wardi, a farmer in an area near Ain Aouda, near the capital Rabat, grows cotton and wheat, in addition to raising sheep and goats. However, he says that agricultural income has been scarce in recent years.

"This is the most severe drought we have ever experienced in history," says El Wardi. "For me, the current agricultural year is lost." The lack of water and food caused the death of some of his animals. El Wardi adds that even the nearby wells, fed by groundwater, are almost dry.

The farmer was forced to sell sheep and resort to agricultural loans to support the family. In fact, recent rains have brought a temporary relief, but insufficient to compensate for the consecutive years of drought.

In addition to agriculture, the shortage also affected the country's famous hammams (public baths with steam and sauna). The authorities decreed the closure of these establishments for three days a week in the main cities, as a water saving measure.

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To address these problems, the government launched a national campaign to encourage water savings. In January, King Mohammed VI chaired a meeting on the water situation in the country. The Minister of Water, Nizar Baraka, warned of a 70% reduction in rainfall between September 2023 and mid-January this year, compared to the average.

To alleviate the situation, the country is investing in seawater desalinators. However, these facilities require a lot of energy and can release concentrated salt water and toxic chemicals to the sea, which harms the environment.

Long-term projections indicate that Morocco will have to continue to adapt to more frequent droughts. Along this path, it is important to recognise that droughts have always existed in Morocco throughout history, but global climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity, and this trend will continue throughout this century.