By SADIA KHATRI
Gladiator sets and ancient Berber qasbahs are immediately associated with the Moroccan city of Ouarzazate. But bustling behind its desert winds is a third, equally impressive feat: the pioneering of solar energy. A $9 billion plant launched in 2009 is slowly being assembled to life, while smaller plants on the city’s outskirts have already begun subsiding electricity costs. Yet, an earlier solar project has proved more monumental in some ways, by tackling a local problem: education in villages.
Each morning, in villages dotted around southern Morocco, children skip school to fetch water from nearby wells. The word nearby is relative: water sources are situated at distances of anything from a walk of half an hour, to two hours. While their counterparts dress for school, filling backpacks with books and pencils, these children lug 10-litre heavy barrels of water back and forth from their houses. In the absence of an effective water provision system, parents are forced to adopt this method, despite its opportunity cost.
“But if we provide portable water in the houses, the kids have no excuse,” says Mohamed Andaam, explaining the rationale behind the project he introduced in 1992. With other members of his organization Association Tichka, a non-profit based in Ouruzazate, Andaam initiated a simple idea: installing solar panels to pump water directly to the houses.
Once the water supply was taken care of, parents did not have to think twice about sending their children to the local schools, which in Morocco are free of cost. Most significantly, attending these schools could enable children to pursue higher education in the cities.
Village schools in Morocco are public, and while they come with their share of limitations – situated at treks of 3 km away through impassable roads, often housed in dilapidated buildings – according to Andaam, they can still compete with the standard of education set by the bigger, fancier city schools. Equipped with multiple classrooms, an administration department and often a canteen, the prefabricated buildings can hold up to 200 students, depending on the size of the village. Often, the number of girls exceeds the number of boys.
“As a sustainable association, Tishka’s goal has always been to go to small villages, not the big cities,” Andaam emphasizes. As a result, what started off with only six villages two decades ago, has grown today to sixty. The area known as the big Ouarzazate, covering the provinces of Ouarzazate, Tingier and Zagura, is almost completely equipped with solar-provided water, with more installations in the pipeline.
By the end of October, Tichka hopes to introduce sun-tracking photovoltaic panels in the villages. Panels are imported from Europe, while locals are hired for installation and maintenance. Even then, Morocco isn’t too far in its own efforts to promote clean energy research. Just last year, the University Poly Disiplananair of Ouarzazate, a secondary school for vocational training, introduced a new department for Solar Energy.
Still, such commendable advances on the Education ministry’s behalf are no greater in impact than grassroots efforts by organizations like Tichka. Andaam feels their work may be on a smaller scale, but is no less profound.