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The village of In Belbal (Tidikelt), Algeria. Photo: Rachid Bellil

How teaching environmental history can help solve water scarcity in Algeria: the case of foggara

In the past, communities in the MENA region succeeded thanks to elders' deep ecological awareness and ingenuity. Developing regional environmental curricula and linking it to practical, technical assistance will help people to understand and tackle the consequences of climate change on their lives.

Blog Post

Published on 7 November 2022

Author(s): Hayette Soltana Bellakehal

Hayette Soltana Bellakehal is a climate educator from Algeria. Contact Hayette

This piece is one of the three winning entries in our Youth Ideas for Europe-MENA Cooperation on Climate Resilience competition

Algeria’s location on the edge of the Sahara subjects it to an absolute water scarcity. Climate change is worsening conditions with severe droughts and reduced rainfalls. Poor water management has devastating consequences for food production and increases the likelihood of forest fires. Population growth intensifies the situation and degrades the quality of urban life through inadequate sanitation and dehydration, both of which threaten human safety and dignity. The closure of water-dependent industries exacerbates unemployment, as was seen with the closure of the paper mill in Mostaganem in 1990. It can also intensify migration to the EU. Criminal networks then exploit the desperation of economic migrants and force them into illegal practices in the Mediterranean region.

At present, there is little awareness, even amongst well-educated Algerians, of how climate change and environmental mismanagement relate to drought in the country. And among all the ways of fostering resilience to such threats, adaptation using indigenous knowledge and nature-based solutions gets little attention. Article 6 of the UNFCCC asserts that education and training are integral in empowering people to respond to climate change threats. This should not be limited to global climate science, but be grounded in local knowledge and experience.

Education at the youth and professional levels is essential. Youths at high schools and universities urgently need a platform which enables them to communicate their concerns and revolutionize local policies of the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP). For the last 5 years, I have championed climate education in Algeria, and I believe building teachers’ capacity is crucial. Learning about the history of environmental management in their region will empower students to be active citizens rather than just victims of climate hazards.

The example of the foggara

Figure 1. Fresh water transported by foggara’s channels to the oasis. Photo courtesy of Rachid Bellil

Due to water scarcity, western visitors have usually depicted the desert as a lifeless place. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the inhabitants of the desert have long mastered survival with minimal resources. The drive to overcome hydrological fragility and thrive is nothing new to the people of the Algerian desert. By at least the 5th century, locals had developed an irrigation technique to capture and channel water from interior reserves up to the hills through a system of draining galleries (see Figure 1, Figure 2). This water management network, known as the foggara, successfully overcame climate patterns threatening human settlements located on hyper-dry soils by supplying sufficient fresh water for farming (see Figure 4).

Figure 2. An outline of the foggara principle. Source: Kendouci, M.A., Bendida, A., Khelfaoui, R. and Kharroubi, B. (2013). The Impact of Traditional Irrigation (Foggara) and Modern (drip, pivot) on the Resource Non-Renewable Groundwater in the Algerian Sahara. Energy Procedia, 36, pp.154–162. doi:10.1016/j.egypro.2013.07.018.

What makes the foggara unique in comparison with other ancient irrigation systems, such as qanats in Iran and khettaras in Morocco, are the measures it deployed to promote inclusiveness and social justice. In the foggara system, water is not sold, nor is it owned in the oasis, but equally distributed among palm farmers according to the frameworks of productivity and working hours of maintenance. Keyal-el-ma are the persons in charge of measuring the water share for farmers using chegfa, a circular copper instrument placed where groundwater flows through channels to reach farms (see Figure 3).The chegfa has openings of different sizes, some of which are filled up with clay by the keyal-el-ma according to the calculated share of each farmer. Meanwhile, the remaining groundwater is equally shared among those on unstable incomes, including women who do not participate in farming. This feature would align with the core promise of today’s sustainable development goals, “leave no one behind”.

Figure 3. Keyal-el-ma with his water measurement instrument (chegfa). Photo courtesy of Rachid Bellil

Old catchment techniques fall under the umbrella of the science that investigates how humankind interacted with nature throughout time, namely “environmental history”. Integrating regional environmental history in schools would be revolutionary on many levels. It paints a vivid picture of how resilient our ancestors were to climate fragility. Communities succeeded thanks to elders’ deep ecological awareness and ingenuity. With a greater understanding of this, students will be better equipped to push for informed policy that can sustain and diversify our currently oil-dependent economy, public awareness of climate change will rise, and more community projects will target resilience and adaptation.

Figure 4. An example of an oasis garden (jnan) irrigated by groundwater. Photo courtesy of Rachid Bellil

The role of development finance

At the practical, technical level, ancient techniques such as foggara can be introduced into water management and planning. Implementation will require linking government bodies, such as the National Observatory of Foggara and the Algerian National Center of Archives with the National Agency for Hydraulic Resources, and ensuring that they cooperate with international agencies. One such agency is the French Development Agency (AFD) which finances and trains Algerian civil servants in effective water planning at the national level under an EU-funded twinning project

While the operation of the foggara does not lower water reserves like modern pumping systems, the latter are more commonly used as they require less maintenance, and fuel is cheap. A useful role for development finance would be to support operations and provision of technical maintenance support. One of the problems is that Keyal-el-ma are growing old and dying without being replaced by new generations, and so foggaras are falling into disrepair. A recent pilot training a group of young people in this technique appears to have been successful. Concerted efforts are needed to encourage young people back into this respected tradition.

Enhancing the quality of education

Policymakers can revolutionize educational systems by mandating agendas for the implementation of environmental history and mainstreaming it, starting in primary schools.  Environmental history, at its core, is a multidisciplinary field that contextualizes culture and survival methods in a historical framework. It should provide learners with a strong grounding in the ways that peoples of the region have interacted with and adapted to environmental conditions and climate changes. International partners, like the European Union and its member states, could provide financial support to enable the Ministry of Education to provide training in region-specific adaptation methods – like the Greening Algerian Campuses- webinar series initiated by the British Council – and cultivate continuous learning for educators such as myself, will ensure that traditional climate adaptation knowledge is transmitted to future generations.

How can environmental history best be taught?

A curriculum, at its best, must be student-centered to encourage critical thinking, but also inclusive of women, children, and minority groups. As a teacher, I want to focus on the challenge of managing water in my classroom and through field visits. This will be of interest to students in Algeria, who are all too aware of the problem of water scarcity, especially those living in rural areas. For example, I would ask them to imagine how foggara used to treat water as a right for all, before comparing this to how it became a privilege sold in bottles. We would then listen to each other’s reports and compare the two contrasting eras of water management in Algeria. This lesson will elevate understanding of ancestral climate justice, as well as introducing young people to traditional knowledge.

A rich resource for the region

Amid this ever-evolving technological age, new climate adaptation initiatives need to derive lessons from past experiences, apply them to modern techniques, and learn to co-evolve with changes in nature. The MENA region has a rich array of practices to learn from and adapt including the foggara discussed here, aflaj irrigation systems in Oman, wind towers in North Africa and the Gulf, and hima sustainable land management. Developing teaching materials for these at the regional level has the potential to ground environmental sustainability in local tradition and identity and to achieve more equitable partnerships for environmental resilience.