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Director of the Laboratory of Environmental, Plant and Urban Sciences - University of Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah - Fez (Morocco)

Could you tell us about your work context and the type of research led in your laboratory of Environmental, Plant and Urban Sciences?

We are working on the very large hydraulic basin of Sebou in Morocco. It starts in the Moroccan water tower that is the Middle Atlas and goes all the way to the Atlantic. The perimeter of this basin covers 4 major Moroccan cities and 5 universities.

Currently, we have about ten students conducting research on various topics. They are divided into 3 research teams. One is especially interested in water and the other 2 teams are more interested in biodiversity in general. We carry out numerous botanical studies for the use of aquatic plants in the assessment of the ecological quality of river water.  

A student will soon defend his thesis on this central issue of ecological water quality in a huge basin such as Sebou, through the use of macrophytes. Multiple European and American indices exist in this area. But we need to adapt them to our hydrological and bioclimatic context. This is the task we have been working on for 8 years and we are in the process of adapting this type of ecological measuring instrument.

How is research structured in Morocco and does it contribute to the implementation of public policies? 

Until recently, research in Morocco was not very structured, either at the national or regional level. It was more a matter of individual actions by researchers who, depending on their specialities, either extended their research or developed others, depending on the funding and the themes of the calls for projects.

Today, research is more structured and priority areas are better defined at the national level. In the field of the exact sciences, everything related to the environment is part of the great challenge facing Morocco.
Indeed, many reports identify Morocco as one of the countries that will be among the most affected by climate change. All research on adaptation and mitigation is therefore important.

Agriculture, a central sector of activity in Morocco, will be directly affected by a major water shortage. It's going to have to adapt. With few energy reserves, such as oil for example, Morocco has long turned to renewable energies.
In this area, we have internationally recognized pilot projects. The Ouarzazate solar energy station is an example.

Morocco has obviously long been interested in water as a resource. A dam construction policy was initiated by King Hassan II more than 50 years ago. An international prize bears his name, in recognition of this avant-garde vision at the time.
Today, with climate change, Morocco is experiencing a strong dynamic of seeking solutions to try to conserve, preserve and better use this vital resource, while guaranteeing its quality.

How can you, as a scientist, contribute to raising awareness among your fellow citizens and developing solutions to Morocco's environmental challenges?

The need for scientific research is obvious. We cannot move forward without a solid scientific and technological foundation, particularly in terms of data, which is a central and fundamental element.
The interface between the scientist and the decision-maker or policy manager is a real challenge in many countries, and not only in developing countries.

In Morocco, the solution we have found as scientists and researchers is to act through the voluntary sector.
In parallel, with our research activities, we have turned to this sector to bridge the gap between science and various stakeholders such as citizens and local and national decision-makers.
I believe that this approach, which certainly does not work 100%, is a very important working tool that brings results.

Throughout the associative world, we manage to transmit simple and accessible messages, after decoding and transposing our scientific jargon, to facilitate the understanding of society and citizens. It also makes it possible to disseminate information to politicians, to feed their thinking.  
In Fez, for example, we have been working on the establishment of a botanical garden that will soon be opened. After having put forward this idea, the "Association du Jardin botanique de Fès" was created, in which citizens and scientists are involved. Indeed, we very quickly understood that, in order to convince the politicians, who are changing with the elections, and to make this project a success, we had to organize ourselves.

In our research laboratory we conduct studies on biodiversity, but this subject alone cannot be enough. On this project, we have succeeded in mobilizing scientists, citizens and local and national elected officials.
I am also a founding member and president of the "Forum marocain des initiatives environnementales" which carries out many actions, on a regular basis on fixed and more specific dates, to raise awareness and "educate" the general public, children, adults and even politicians on environmental issues.

Focusing exclusively on children and young people does not seem relevant to us because, by the time they reach the age of being in a position to make decisions, we would be wasting a lot of time and things that cannot be recovered!
Today's decision-makers have in their hands, the power to save what can still be saved.

For example, since 2009, every 03 July, the date of World Day without Plastic Bags, we have awarded the "Environmental Prize" of the Moroccan Forum for Environmental Initiatives. Every year, we organize a public and festive event.
It awards 12 prizes to local and national initiatives on various themes: scientific research, media related to the environment, the educator or animator involved in the environment, the "green thumb" for an exceptional gardener, a school, university or other public school garden, the most beautiful flowered balconies, etc.
We have a Selection Committee that awards these Prizes, but our action is above all educational and incentive, rather than financial.

What are the biggest environmental challenges facing Morocco? How can scientists, in the so-called "exact" and social sciences, contribute to addressing them?

I will leave aside the material aspects, the economic activity in general, because I believe that THE fundamental subject, THE great challenge is education and especially environmental education.

With its thousand-year-old cities, Morocco has had a great tradition of respecting the environment and adapting to harsh environmental conditions, in some southern regions for example. But over the past 3 decades, this environmental awareness has gradually been lost. We must therefore make an effort to reclaim it.
There is a lot of talk about the increasing scarcity of water and its quantity, but the question of pollution also arises. There is a real problem with water use. In the past, water was sacred in more than one way and was used wisely. This has been lost and we therefore have a duty to bring the population back to a greater awareness of the role that everyone can play, at their own level. There is of course the agricultural use that is in excess. We will have to generalize drip to save water.

We must also talk about solutions based on nature, technicians also have a role to play.
I mentioned the policy of building many dams that was necessary at the time. However, a policy of watershed protection should have been pursued jointly with the massive planting of trees, for example. This should be done very quickly today because a large part of these dams are silted up because of erosion and the absence of this joint effort.

We also have a major problem related to overexploitation of the forest by lobbies. For the wood itself, because we have some rather noble woods in Morocco, such as the Atlas cedar or the argan tree, which is an endemic plant.
This overexploitation is also due to the real estate sector which burns forests to build. It is local companies, but also multinationals in the tourism sector that are setting up large complexes, at the expense of forests, sites of biological interest and wetlands.

Morocco must also take up the energy challenge. We are developing renewable energies but, in the medium term, they will only be able to cover 25 or 30% of our national needs.
Here again, we must educate people to reduce the use of fossil fuels for transport, heating and air conditioning, for example.

In the field of what is now called "eco-construction", Morocco has an important heritage that has unfortunately been lost. We had many construction models with local materials such as earth and straw that allow free thermal insulation. These methods have been abandoned for reinforced concrete, which is very poorly adapted to the climatic conditions of Morocco.

There is therefore room to rethink our ancestral techniques to adapt, modernize and reuse them. Reinforced concrete is expensive in itself. It involves costs and pollution related to transport. In addition, it makes housing unliveable for residents in both winter and summer.

We must reclaim our ecological and civilisational heritage in Morocco, as in many other countries. It is a heritage to be valued and revived!

Interview conducted during the EUROPE-INBO 2019 Conference - From 17 to 20 June 2019 in Lahti (Finland) - ©RIOB 2019