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In Morocco, a Microcosm of What Leads Many to Leave Their Home Countries

Global attention is understandably focused on Syrian refugees, but the migration crisis in Europe is part of a bigger trend that climate and social scientists have been warning about for years.

Roughly two-thirds of those who have applied for asylum in the European Union this year are from countries other than Syria. Many come from conflict-ridden places, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but many too are fleeing challenges related to unemployment, environmental change, and population growth across the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

A village in Morocco, where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2008 to 2010 and recently returned, is a microcosm of the forces affecting small communities reliant on natural resources across this part of the world.

In 2011, high in the Atlas Mountains, a storm triggered a flood that swept down on the small Berber village of Agoudim, Morocco. The valley’s river overflowed its banks and caused chaos. All the crops near the river were lost; the only road into town suffered so much damage it was permanently closed; many houses were completely flooded.

Hassein Ouzayd, a resident of Agoudim, told me that overgrazing and firewood harvesting caused the devastating floods, but the phenomenon is also connected to global climate change.

It may be counterintuitive, but these kinds of flash floods are a symptom of the slow creep of the Sahara Desert, which like many deserts around the world is expanding. According to research by Janpeter Schilling of the University of Hamburg and colleagues, precipitation in Morocco could decline by as much as 20 percent by 2050. At the same time, temperatures are likely to rise by two to three degrees Centigrade. When the rains do fall, they come all at once. There is little topsoil or vegetation in the Atlas and Rif Mountains to absorb the deluge and the water runs straight downhill. Flash floods killed 31 people in 2014.

“It’s a collective action problem, it’s the tragedy of the commons”

Flooding is just one way desertification threatens the livelihoods of rural Moroccans. Agriculture, which provides 44 percent of labor opportunities and generates 19 percent of gross domestic product, is most at risk. Access to firewood and water are also at risk.

For the complete article, please see New Security Beat.