Desert Qanats

MOROCCO. Jorf near Erfoud. Underground canals. 1993. Photo by Bruno Barbey. http://www.magnumPhotos.com
Jorf, Morocco, near Erfoud. Underground canals. 1993. Photo by Bruno Barbey. http://www.MagnumPhotos.com

On the margins of the Sahara Desert, the isolated oases of the Draa River valley and Tafilalt have relied on qanat (locally khettara) water for irrigation since the late 14th century. In Marrakech and the Haouz plain, the qanats have been abandoned since the early 1970s, having dried up. In the Tafilaft area, half of the 400 khettaras are still in use. The Hassan Adahkil Dam’s impact on local water tables is said to be one of the many reasons for the loss of half of the khettara.[25]

MOROCCO. Jorf near Erfoud. Underground canals. 1993. Photo by Bruno Barbey. http://MagnumPhotos.com
Jorf, Morocco, near Erfoud. Underground canals. 1993. Photo by Bruno Barbey. http://www.MagnumPhotos.com

The black berbers (haratin) of the south were the hereditary class of qanat diggers in Morocco who build and repair these systems. Their work was hazardous.[8]

— Source Wikipedia

On the way to Jorf, also known as El Jorf by some mapping software, one can see kilometer after kilometer of strange mounds in the desert. I’d driven by them several times and had always wondered what they were. On one trip, my Moroccan friend, Slimane, told me they were water canals, but I was skeptical. How did canals equal mounds? Weren’t canals above ground? I was baffled.

Weeks later, while traveling with some friends via grand taxi, we convinced the driver to stop for a few minutes so we could take a look. The man attending the site explained that the mounds were created from the dirt lifted up via foot-driven pulley, then dumped to the side. Workers would dig straight down, creating a ventilation tube,

Qanat cross section
Qanat cross section

then continue the underground canal. Ventilation tubes are dug about every ten meters or so. (See the diagram to the right for a more details.) One such canal in the area, he said, extends 45 kilometers from the base of nearby mountains to the city.

The taxi driver needed to keep going, so we finished our short visit, but just a few days ago I made it back for a more detailed visit. This time, we went down into the canals (qanats) guided by another local man. The one we visited this time was about 20 kilometers, he said, but was now dry.

Below are more images of our exploration. For more information, try here.

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4 thoughts on “Desert Qanats

  1. what fabulous stories—You truly have a curiosity and love for life that draws you into the center of it all. xo

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