Khettara: The Treasure of the Haouz Region

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Water is of great essence to life in all its manifestations and walks, whether that of plants, animals, or humans. Besides, water is also the pillar of urban planning, and stability. Many deserted places flourished and came to life due to water abundance, whereas other lively and hectic places came to fade away as water provision dwindled on taking the spirit of the place with it.

Water is the core around which human history revolved. It affected people’s collective works and represented not only a historical and ritual reference but also an important and inherent survival element. This fact was so evident, particularly in the Haouz region during the Almoravids era. The creatively engineered means of providing locals with sufficient water needs to depend only on what nature offers from water sources, or valleys, even the underground basins. They came up with smart ways to bring it all up to be used where needed. Creative tools and techniques were considered, one of which is the watersheds (Khettarat)1. This technique was one of the most important and creative examples of traditional engineering that helped in water management. It also made it possible to know the mechanisms of how water is directed and distributed underground.

The flow and abundance of water was a huge natural factor that contributed to the founding of Marrakesh city and its development. Luckily, for the city and the Haouz region in general, there has always been a wide underground basin of surface water that would be smoothly and easily brought up thanks to the Khettara system. The watersheds surrounding Marrakech particularly and the Haouz region in general, are of utmost importance in the historical, economic, and social development of the region. Through this course, remarkable landscapes that stand presently as living witnesses can be considered a symbolic representation of the region’s history. Watersheds are among the traditional techniques that try to adapt to changes and survive in modern technology. Such techniques have been used to classify the watersheds based on a set of related features, and thus compare them in accordance with their topography and geographic positioning.

The founding of Marrakesh city during the second half of the 11th century was a substantial achievement of great historical importance in the organization and management of water resources. Marrakech, as the cradle of culture and civilization in southern Morocco, played an important role in the country’s economic life. Since its birth, it was challenging to provide the city with water. It was necessary to water the orchards and pastures. All this required expediting the management of significant quantities of water to cover the city’s ever-increasing needs. Irrigated farming constituted the only activity in the Haouz. This type of irrigation can only be performed with abundant water and the use of appropriate and suitable water management techniques to fetch water so that it can then be distributed to farmlands. The natural pattern and the harsh weather conditions in the Haouz region also linked the development of agriculture with the dependence on water acquisition techniques. In this context, for centuries, the residents of the Haouz used their skills to supply water. Thus, they managed to water thousands of hectares using the largest possible number of water resources. The latter always constituted a basic raw material. It was necessary to get water from a spring on the feet in the Atlas Mountains and fetch it by soil dirt along kilometers. However, the water transported this way is always prone to evaporation due to the heat, and large amounts of it are lost before they reach the agricultural fields. This issue leads to the use of certain techniques known at the time as Saniya or Na’ura to satisfy the population’s needs for water by using open nebula.

During the end of the 11th century CE, an ingenious method of watering and water supply was used. It is related to the watersheds khettara system, which apparently contributed significantly to the existence and development of oases in this area. The social circumstances and behaviors also changed their features along with the changing water management system.

The utterance Khettara is an Arabic word derived from the verb “Khettara”. It means an action of fluctuation and movement. Thus, linguistically, it means an extension of the water in motion. Just like the “Sania” (water transporting camel), “Na’ura” (waterwheel) or Shadouf4. As for its actual meaning, a long and regular tunnel or basement connects consistent water wells and sources. Its purpose is to drain the trapped water inside the open nebula and the waterbed and bring it to the surface of the earth or to points of use where the tunnel itself forms a waterway with a regular slope.

The Watersheds system mobilizes groundwater through a passage or crypt, which enables the passage of groundwater towards the surface of the earth. The watershed is based on exploiting the underground waterbeds by transporting the water through an “underground tunnel”. This transportation goes from the upper layer towards the bottom one by making use of the topographic slope in the area. The underground tunnel plays the role of providing ventilation and maintaining the Khattara from the accumulation of sand and mud due to sand storms. Watersheds consist of three main sections:

  1. The Feeding Area: it is also called the watershed access; it is the first few deepest wells including the water sources feeding the Khattara.
  2. The Waterway: it is the channel through which water runs from the top of the watershed towards the bottom.
  3. Distribution Ducts: they are small channels and surface drains that separate watersheds from palm fields and farms. See the drawing below.
Illustration of the “Khettara” — Ancient Waterways in Morocco

Khettara remains one of the most prominent traditional systems. After its arrival to Morocco, during the Almoravids period, Watersheds spread largely in the region of Tafilalet since the sixteenth century CE. Khettara plays a major role in ensuring the stability of the oases residents and their continuous practice of agricultural activity, as well as compensating for the shortage of water.

The support structure of the above stereoscope is made of galvanized steel tubes, with an added necessary touch ensuring the stability of the scenography. The structure is covered with a protective coating out of sight. To represent the elements, roots, and various components of the scenography, expanded polystyrene packaging, and fiberglass sheets are sealed with ceramics to create the basic topography.

Watersheds play a very important economic and social role. If it were not for them, a city called “Marrakech” would not have existed in its current size, with its urban and religious facilities, as well as its gardens, orchards, and large parks. Without it, these agricultural spaces would not have flourished in its suburbs.

The economic and social significance of watersheds and their flow (effluents) differ from one owner to another. This is explained through the important supplies it requires to exploit and durably maintain Khattaras. We find that the most common ones are within the ownership of the state. Yet, the economic and social role in question has witnessed a significant retreat regarding the current status of the majority of watersheds. Most of them became dry, and their condition deteriorated due to their inability to keep up with modern irrigation techniques and systems.

How is watersheds ownership distributed in the Haouz? What is its economic and social impact?

The ownership of watersheds is considered one of the main justifications for its development and its continuation, or its deterioration and demise. Due to the high cost required for its completion, owners may just abandon such watersheds since they can’t afford it. This pushes for their gradual disappearance.

  1. The throughput flow of short watersheds (less than 1 km) does not exceed 15 L/S. These watersheds are mostly the properties of individuals or groups, and are used mainly to irrigate private lands.
  2. Medium watersheds (between 1-4 km) whose throughput ranges between 15-40 L/S, are in the ownership of Ahbas6. It is used to provide water to religious facilities and public spaces, besides irrigating the gardens within its ownership. It is also common to find these watersheds in the ownership of Zawayas (Sid Al-Zuwain) due to the necessity to provide water for people during the seasonal festivals.
  3. Long watersheds (exceeding 4 km) with a high throughput that exceeds 40 L/S are usually found in the ownership of the state. Companies in charge of these watersheds, such as COMAGRI LTD (the Moroccan company for the exploitation of agricultural lands), exploit them to irrigate their lands. It is also used by public administrations in the city, such as the National Office of Drinking Water (ONEP)

A large percentage of watershed remains under private property: family or joint ownership between groups of individuals in the village, forming what is known as a “Commune”. This is due to the fact that the process of exploiting Khattaras is in itself a difficult and laborious process that takes time and requires many resources. This necessitates a cooperative and collective human work that is shared by individuals and carried out along the watershed location. The majority of collective Khattaras have a weak throughput that does not exceed 15 L/S, even though they represent 34% of the Haouz region, while the Ahbas’ share reaches 12% of the total Haouz watersheds Khattaras of Sources of Brahim for example. On the contrary, the state owns no more than 4% of the total 6 watersheds in the Haouz region, a ratio that corresponds to the proportion of the longest and highest
throughput such as Great Menara.

Picture of traditional topographers (Khtatriya) digging a watershed (Source: Screenshot from a video prepared by the Geography Researcher Thierry RUF about the museum)

Commenting on Khattara water sources, we interviewed Musstapha Aichane PhD, from Marrakech region, a university professor of geography in Cadi Ayyad University:

“I was born in Marrakech in “Kasbah” to be exact (An ancient neighborhood in Marrakech city) where the Khettara was the only source of drinkable and agricultural water. I still remember how deep and long it was, just as deep as how it economically and socially helped my parents and grandparents back then. The Khettara is not only a technique intended for mobilization of water resources, but it also contributed to the advent of the sustainability of the oasis culture and economy. My only message to the youth is: Please dig more for the treasures made and developed by the ingenious people. This is a key to preserve and give it more value, as an appreciation to our grandparents”.

In light of the above, it becomes clear that the Khettara technique is considered an important historical heritage, and an ecological treasure that was well represented in the exhibits of the Mohammed VI Museum for the Civilization of Water. It received high appreciation and great attention from visitors (researchers, students, tourists …), and it is, indeed, the technique that brought together the experience, perseverance, and synergy of the oases men (Tafilalet) and that paid off in bringing up and managing internal water resources. Because of the decline in the role Khattaras play in irrigating oases and considering draining and dwindling throughputs, it is necessary to work on their rehabilitation through:

  • Raising awareness among the younger generation, and foreign tourists regarding their ecological significance
  • Planning a program to rehabilitate the watersheds
  • Rehabilitating conventional watershed-based irrigation systems to ensure their sustainability
  • Giving value to this heritage to ensure its sustainability

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Errachid Montassir is from the Rhamna province of Morocco and is a High Atlas Foundation manager of the USAID Farmer-To-Farmer program. He was an organizer of the first United Nations Youth Climate Summit in New York during 2019.

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