Why you should care

Because the Arab Spring also began with a single country’s revolution.

When King Mohammed VI led Friday prayer earlier this year from a mosque outside the Moroccan capital of Rabat, he made a special appeal for rain. The king pleaded for relief during the peak of a rainy season in North Africa, in which Morocco received scarce rainfall and faced severe drought. The cry for help has since become a feature of Friday prayer in mosques around Morocco, but many farmers claimed that this past autumn’s harvest was already lost.

Leaders in Rabat would prefer to avoid the potential economic consequences of the drought. In 2011, a struggling economy was one factor that drove Moroccans to protest in the streets during the Arab Spring. The Kingdom weathered the unrest, avoiding a political crisis, and has recently been promoting Morocco’s survival as a regional success story. Today, however, Morocco could be headed for another Arab Spring. The reason? Climate change.

Morocco could be the main stage of a coming climate revolution in North Africa, according to activists and scholars. Though predicting exactly when and where this scenario will unfold is difficult, a number of reports, including a 2012 study conducted by the University of Hamburg, have determined that climate change will put Morocco at high risk of conflict. Whether this means a revolution is uncertain, but observers agree that climate change will have an impact on socio-economic and political developments in Morocco for the years to come. “Injustices related to climate change will force themselves on the social and political movements of Morocco’s future,” says Hamza Hamouchene, co-author of The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice.

Environmental decline is only one part of the equation that could lead to instability and revolution here.

While North African leaders understand the urgency of climate change, Hamouchene says, their strategies aren’t progressive enough to resolve the issue. In Morocco, the government has favored partnering with institutions such as the European Union and World Bank to fight climate change rather than engage local communities and their own solutions, which often come from firsthand knowledge and experience of working with the land. But Morocco is unlikely to consider changing its approach anytime soon, Hamouchene says, which is a decision that may come at a critical cost. Neglecting local communities, he notes, will push citizens to align their environmental-related grievances with existing movements for freedom, sovereignty and social equality. And if past instances of unrest in Morocco are any indication, the target of the criticism will be state leaders and government officials.

Dangerous climate trends are likely to have a negative effect on future standards of living throughout Morocco. Current challenges such as rising sea levels, hotter temperatures and the creeping sprawl of the Sahara Desert aren’t going anywhere — and could worsen. The country is likely to see a spike in natural disasters, claims the Moroccan environmental activist Salaheddin Abir of Attac, an anti-globalization organization. He predicts that “droughts, flash flooding and even earthquakes will become more common, and make thousands of Moroccans vulnerable to poverty.”

Meanwhile, heavy industry and manufacturing are aggravating the onset of climate change in several regions of the country, says Abir. “There is nothing more responsible for contributing to climate change in Morocco than industry.” He traces environmental risks including pollution, natural resource depletion and land degradation to national industries such as mining. The problem, however, is that mineral exports of phosphate, silver and zinc are a lucrative pillar of the economy, making up 35 percent of Morocco’s total exports and 5 percent of annual GDP.

Environmental decline is only one part of the equation that could lead to instability and revolution here. By 2030, USAID expects Morocco’s population to grow by 6 million, which is sure to increase demand for energy, food, water and jobs. Today, poverty levels sit just shy of 9 percent, with nearly one-half of Moroccans between ages 15 and 35 unemployed or not enrolled in school. In a 2012 report, the World Bank estimated that the country will need to sustain optimistic economic growth rates of 7 percent to 8 percent in consecutive years if it is going to avoid deteriorating levels of poverty.

Today, Morocco faces a difficult situation in which it must provide to a rapidly expanding population in the midst of a climate crisis that is ruining agriculture. If a revolt does occur, it will be the ensuing struggle over access to resources that causes it, says Moshe Terdiman of Muslim Environment Watch. “When we talk about climate triggers for conflict, we mostly talk about an allocation crisis.”

An approach rooted in democratic principles is essential to avoiding this outcome, Terdiman says, because doing so “obligates both the Moroccan government and citizens to contribute to the decrease of climate change risks.” And the Moroccan government has taken steps in this direction. Its 2008 sustainable agriculture strategy, Plan Maroc Vert (PMV), aims to empower rural farming communities affected by climate change through funding, technical training and assistance with access to international markets. Since its implementation, Morocco has doubled its olive cultivation to 1.5 million and added 300,000 jobs. “In terms of opportunity and barriers to entry, Morocco is a good place to work,” says Yossef Ben-Meir, founder of the High Atlas Foundation, a Marrakech-based sustainable development group. “It’s a good place to address matters of climate change, but in a way that promotes human development.”

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