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Volume 30, Number 6November/December 1979

In This Issue

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Arab Aid

In Morocco

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

In a narrow gorge in Morocco's bleak Atlas Mountains, Ba Mohamed M'hammed leaned over the crest of the massive Al Massira Dam and peered down at the base where, far below, Lilliputian laborers toiled in the hot sun on the final section of the towering concrete edifice. "When it's finished," he said, "this dam will change many things - even the climate."

M'hammed, like most young Moroccans, is eager for change. For although his country is separated from Europe by no more than the eight-mile-wide Strait of Gibraltar, it is decades behind in economic development. And for M'hammed, his blue plastic hard hat jammed jauntily on his head, the $92-million Al Massira Dam - 40 percent of it financed by Saudi Arabia - is an indication that Morocco is catching up.

Laboring night and day - in the cold glare of giant arc lights and the fierce heat of the North African sun - M'hammed, a 25-year old Berber engineer, and his fellow Moroccan workers have, in four short years, harnessed the fast-flowing waters of the Oum er Rbia River to provide both water and electricity to speed their country's economic growth.

To control the river's abundant, but irregular, flow, the dam builders have thrown a 269-foot high, 1,280-foot long barrier across a narrow gorge in the Middle Atlas Mountains at Sidi Cheho, midway between Casablanca and Marrakech. Built with 12 million cubic feet of concrete and 2,700 tons of reinforced steel, and supported by 20 huge buttresses each 20 feet thick, the multi-purpose dam will retain 739 billion gallons of water in a 150-square-mile reservoir stretching back 19 miles into the hills.

Begun in 1974, construction of the dam proceeded at a phenomenal pace. By late 1978, the water was rising rapidly in an amphitheater of low mountains behind the almost-completed dam, and thousands of peasants, whose homes will eventually be flooded by the man-made lake, were already packing their meager possessions.

Unlike the inhabitants of some areas - who have resisted such sweeping changes in their lives - the Moroccans near Sidi Cheho, many of them impoverished, welcome the move; the government is providing brand new homes for all of them, a tangible manifestation of the prosperity that the dam will mean for the region. Actually, Al Massira has already brought a measure of prosperity to the Sidi Cheho region - in the form of well-paid laboring jobs on the construction site. And for some it will mean much more: lifetime employment as maintenance workers or, for those who mastered specialized construction skills, jobs at other construction sites.

Late in 1978 some of those specialists were operating five enormous cranes perched atop the massive gray wall that was closing off the valley between brown hills. Weaving back and forth in a final frenzy of activity, the cranes were moving the final tons of steel and concrete into place while, at the base of the dam, white water foamed against the barrier, ready to be harnessed to two giant 75-MW generators that engineers were installing in the almost-completed power house. That power house is a crucial feature of the dam. When completed and in operation, it will generate 240 million kilowatts of hydroelectric energy annually. But electricity, nevertheless, is only one of the dam's benefits. In addition to power, it will provide up to 18.4 billion cubic feet of water a year to homes and industry in the coastal region between Casablanca and Safi.

Additionally, the dam will supply water to irrigate 200,000 acres of new farm land on the Doukkala Plain - enough, as M'hammed claimed, to change the harsh climate of Sidi Cheho to a more temperate lake-side environment. In brief, construction of the dam, which has already provided on-the-job training and new homes, will also generate electricity and supply water for industry and other new homes, irrigate farmland and modify the forbidding climate.

The Al Massira project is but part of Morocco's effort to catch up with the economies of Europe eight miles away. On the Loukos River near the site of the ancient Phoenician city of Lixus, Morocco built a second dam, which will irrigate 130,000 acres of farm land in northern Morocco and generate another 62 million kilowatts of hydroelectric energy each year. And both are the results of Arab aid: $36 million from Saudi Arabia for the Al Massira Dam and $37 million from Kuwait for the Wadi Al Makhazen Dam - 35 percent of the $105-million total cost of the latter project.

For Kuwait, contributions to projects in Morocco are nothing new. The first and oldest of the big Arab aid funds, the Kuwait Fund has been contributing generously to Moroccan development for more than a decade. As early as 1966 the fund granted two loans totaling $30 million for two important agricultural schemes in central Morocco. The bigger Tessaout project, 37 miles from Marrakech, involved construction of a 700-yard-long, earth- and rock-fill dam to store more than seven billion cubic feet of water, and of canals to irrigate a 67,000-acre area. The second and smaller scheme extended irrigation over an additional 56,000 acres of the Tadla Plain.

In 1972 the Kuwait Fund granted a loan of $3 million for a sugar factory in northeast Morocco - one of seven plants being built in a bid to make the country self-sufficient in sugar supplies. Three years later the fund made two more loans - one, of $13 million, helped to finance a 300-MW thermal power station at Kenitra, near Rabat, the national capital, and the other, of $8.8 million, to finance a plant at Safi for refining phosphates - the driving force behind Morocco's economic growth.

Because of the importance of phosphates, the Rabat government is investing heavily in their development. Morocco possesses 75 percent of the world's known mineable phosphate reserves. Widely used in industry, phosphates are also important as the base of agricultural fertilizers, for which the demand - to help feed the world's exploding population - is expected to increase.

Already the world's largest phosphate exporter - it earned nearly $500 million from 20 million metric tons in 1977 - Morocco is expected to produce 60 million tons of phosphates annually within the next 10 years and, through Arab aid, will refine a large proportion of its own production in the complex of chemical plants now under construction at Safi. The result, of course, will be more-profitable exports.

As is usually the case now, however, no one country bears the full load in Morocco. The Abu Dhabi Fund is also providing money - $29 million for two cotton spinning mills in the Zam Valley and a multi-story marketing center in Casablanca - and Saudi Arabia is backing what is considered the key to Morocco's future phosphate exports: a new $260 million mineral-shipping seaport on the Atlantic Ocean at Jorf Lasfar - Yellow Cape - near Safi.

Co-financed by the Saudi Fund for Development, the Yellow Cape project, in 1978, was a scene of feverish activity as giant cranes swung huge rocks off trucks at the end of a causeway and dropped them into the sea to form the base of a two-mile-long harbor wall. Simultaneously, a fleet of 50-ton trucks ferried great loads of stones and cement to the site to fill in the wall and complete it. Altogether 12.5 million tons of rock and close to 32 million cubic feet of concrete will be used to complete the port by 1980.

Large enough to dock ships up to 100,000 tons, Jorf Lasfar's eight mineral berths will be capable of handling up to 42 million tons of phosphate exports annually. In addition, the port will also have two terminals for oil tankers and a dock for general goods - all of them financed in part, under an agreement signed in April 1978, by a Saudi Fund loan of $36 million.

With such massive construction underway, Morocco, of course, needs large quantities of cement. And again Arab aid has provided help: the Jiddah-based Islamic Development Bank has provided a $15 million loan to finance imports - a way of meeting immediate needs - and the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development has lent Morocco $31 million to build a cement plant of its own at Oujda, on the eastern border with Algeria.

Not all Arab aid to Morocco is earmarked for specific projects. Large sums - $60 million from the Saudi Fund for Development, $34 million from the Kuwait Fund and $18 million from the Abu Dhabi Fund -have been loaned to Morocco's National Development Bank for use at its own discretion. The Bank has responsibility for providing part of the finance for the national development plan, especially for promotion of labor-intensive and export-directed industries. It used $22 million from Kuwait, for example, to help finance 16 different enterprises, including a bottling unit, a plastics factory and an electric light bulb manufacturing plant.

Arab aid, in fact, plays a vital role in many aspects of Morocco's economic development. Without it, Morocco's drive to catch up with Europe would never have made the exciting progress that is now visible across the land.

This article appeared on pages 4-9 of the November/December 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1979 images.