Can Harvesting Fog Help to Counteract Droughts and Human Displacement?
Kerill O'Neill speaks with Jamila Bargach, director of Dar Si Hmad, the largest functioning fog collection project in the world.
Jamila Bargach is the executive director of Dar Si Hmad, the NGO managing the largest functioning fog collection project in the world. This system fosters the independence of Amazigh people in Ait Baamrane, a Berber region in Morocco, by delivering potable water to their households.
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Kerill O’Neill: Your career path has taken you from Ford Foundation Research Fellow to founder and director of a women’s shelter in Casablanca to professor of anthropology in Morocco, the United States, and Switzerland. How did you end up as executive director of an NGO, planning and implementing a fog-harvesting project in the mountains of southwest Morocco and running a hands-on environmental curriculum for rural schools in the region?
Jamila Bargach: The life of any individual is a sum total of encounters, external events, opportunities, and choices one makes, which then shape the destinies we choose for ourselves. But these destinies are always evolving and changing, always in the making and not foreclosed once and for all. Old wisdom teaches us that searching for the means to “better oneself,” to “strive for higher attainment” (though such concepts are always culturally embedded), is an assured path not only to self-fulfillment but also for creating possibilities for communal cohesion and strength. I see my lived experiences fitting into this larger framework whose mental, emotional, and historical contexts have shaped the choices I have made.
I continue to be profoundly outraged by any form of injustice, be it toward humans or other lives. Given the world that I experienced as a child, the immense influence of my mother’s family, the choices I made as a young person, and the fortunate encounters I had along the way during these formative years, I remain committed to equity, dignity, and justice. These values are the guiding principles in my life. Upon my return to Morocco from the United States after completing my Ph.D. in 2000, I joined the faculty of l’École Nationale d’Architecture (ENA Rabat), where, using my anthropology background, I taught future architects about space beyond its technical apprehension and use. Throughout my tenure at ENA and while doing various site visits throughout the country, I became extremely interested in questions of adequate housing for profoundly poor populations in the old cities of Rabat and my native Salé. While this work brought me closer to my anthropology training, I needed more grounding in human rights advocacy. I was fortunate to meet and work under the supervision and mentorship of Dr. Abdullahi An-Na’im, a renowned human rights activist and human rights law professor at Emory University.
My experience at Emory was the beginning of a maturation process that honed my feelings of outrage and anger, and it taught me how to channel them into action. Through this training, I learned mechanisms for truly affecting legal and social change. I also came to understand how lobbying networks operated, and the ways in which working with organized civil society (for example, community groups, NGOs, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations) created positive impact. Girded with this deep belief in a just society and armed with this new knowledge, I worked with marginal and poor communities to better organize themselves and to improve their living conditions. At the same time, I was volunteering with a feminist activist organization in Casablanca, continuing the important work they had contributed to changing Moroccan family law. When this organization received funding to open a shelter for women suffering from domestic abuse, I volunteered on the spot to take this idea and turn it into a reality. So, in 2005, while still teaching at ENA, I embarked on a new adventure after having worked with members of the old medina community in Casablanca.
KO: What was it like, creating, managing, and running the women’s shelter?
JB: It proved to be an amazing, though highly challenging, opportunity. Operating within a secular and human rights frame of reference pitted our organization against beliefs and practices of state representatives, and even at times of families and the women themselves, which engendered multiple conflicts and a perpetual state of tension at the shelter. Take, for example, the antiquated Moroccan penal code, which at the time (2005) had a clause penalizing anyone who provides assistance or shelter to a woman running away from her household. This law effectively targeted the explicit mission of the shelter. So we openly declared an act of civil disobedience. We acknowledged that we might be prosecuted for protecting the women, but we argued that this clause was unjust, oppressive, morally reprehensible, and legally flawed. From 2005 to 2010, when I resigned from my post, we hosted an average of 20 women with their children per month. Despite limited resources, we did what we could to give them adequate psychological care, legal counsel, and, especially, a safe environment.
I decided to leave the shelter because a prior request to transfer to the southwest of Morocco was approved by the university. It was such a hard decision. Working on the ground to empower women, and witnessing the impact of the shelter’s support on so many of them, had been reward incarnated. Nevertheless, I was excited about the new prospects of working in southwest Morocco, a region I had known and visited repeatedly through family connections. Its stark beauty, complicated history, ethnographic diversity, and current state of non-development (for lack of a better term) fascinated me. I had finally found a place to call home, peaceful and strongly rooted. However, migration, poverty, water scarcity, and general environmental degradation have hit it hard. The raison d’être of Dar Si Hmad, the organization my partner and I co-founded, is to find sustainable ways to address all of these problems, giving us fertile ground in which to work.
KO: Your organization focuses its efforts on improving the lives of Amazigh (Berber) communities of southwest Morocco. Can you tell us about these communities?
JB: The Amazigh people have a long history, tracing their origins back to North Africa and the Sahara. Imazighen (the plural form of Amazigh) form a culture and not a race, as many have claimed; the Amazigh population encompasses white and black skin, and every gradation in between. Their history goes back to pharaonic times, and they played a major role in the Punic Wars between Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) and Rome. Amazigh thinkers like Saint Augustine exerted a major influence on the early church. They were Christian, Jewish, pagan, and animist. Following the spread of Islam in the seventh century, they adopted this religion, and then spread it to Andalus and to sub-Saharan Africa through important Amazigh dynasties like the Almoravids (11th century) and the Almohads (mid-11th to mid-13th centuries) in what is now Morocco.
Amazigh scholars, be they Muslims or Jews, like Averroes and the Toledo school, participated in the dissemination of classical knowledge (from India, Persia, and Greece) to what would become our modern world. But the Amazigh language and culture have fallen on hard times in the postcolonial nations where ideologies of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism have dominated the politics of nation building. In Egypt, only a very small population still speaks Berber. In Libya under Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, it was a crime to speak Berber. In both Algeria and Morocco, the valorization of Arabic as the language of the sacred and the dominant language has contributed to the marginalization of the Amazigh language. Despite the fact that Amazigh is today a national language in Morocco (since constitutional changes in 2011), it remains an endangered language, and activists continue their struggle in Algeria for the recognition of Amazigh language and culture. Today in Morocco, the mountainous regions are known as the Amazigh-speaking areas where the cultural traditions continue to have strong roots. The Anti-Atlas mountain range (where our organization works) is one of the regions that still speaks the language and is considered a bastion of Amazigh identity.
KO: You are the Oak Fellow for Human Rights at Colby College for fall 2019. What is the link between access to water and human rights?
JB: Water is essential to life. This is a truism. But not everyone has access to it. Only about 1 percent of Earth’s water is freshwater available for human consumption, but overuse, poor management worldwide, lack of infrastructure, soaring demand, and climate change are key stressors that threaten this precious resource, making it increasingly inaccessible for the poorest social strata around the planet. In 2010 the United Nations General Assembly declared access to clean water (and sanitation) a human right. If we accept and recognize that human rights are built around values, interests, and dignity of human beings, be they present or future, we must then recognize that accessing safe drinking water, an absolute human need, is a right. When we consider how access to clean water is aligned with economic status and is often not available to poorer communities, the link between rights and water is obvious. This link is reinforced when we consider how water sources are privatized, that priority for water use is given to industries or businesses at the expense of marginalized communities, that norms of potability are not respected, and that inequality is indexed to water accessibility.
In the mountains where our organization works, communities have dealt with water scarcity since time immemorial and have adapted their culture and life choices around it, but given the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, community members are seriously concerned about increasing water scarcity and its impact on their livelihoods. Local government and the water agency have laid pipes to connect places close to the main roads, but for those inland, no such effort was deployed or even deemed worth deploying. For mountain-dwelling women and men, this lack of connection to water is an injustice, as they suffer from compounded effects of drought, desiccated wells, and what they consider serious forms of state neglect and indifference to their plight.
KO: You have argued that we exist in a post-humanist setting, where “human” is not and should not be the measure of all things. How do you reconcile that with the idea that we are now in the age of the Anthropocene, where human activity is a dominant force shaping planetary systems? Is this a sign that we are also living in what Amitav Ghosh calls “the great derangement”?
JB: Two major points stood out from my reading of Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), one being how future generations will inhabit the world and make sense of its workings. That is, what we currently know of our environment and how it works will no longer be the lived and experienced reality for future generations, who will face an altered world. All that is familiar to us will have disappeared. Placing ourselves today in such prospective thinking, it seems that this future world is the uncanny personified, engendering feelings of anxiety and fear.
The second point is Ghosh’s call for a “politics of sincerity” when referring to the charges that climate skeptics and climate activists allege against each other. This ethics of sincere solidarity should be our guide, our chart, and our destination. I believe we are just one species among the many species with whom we share the world. It is human domination and human-related activities that have led to the proposal of the Anthropocene as a new geological era, but we have to question and challenge the privilege and status we have conferred upon ourselves. From the untethered economic forces of late capitalism, to savage competition and hyper-consumerism, to the political and economic systems ruling our world today, action is needed to stop the massive destruction of the sixth mass extinction.
Ghosh looks at how this altered, “deranged” world has found little or no representation in the world of fiction, due in part to an inability to address and reflect on its knot of complexities. I like to think, reason, and feel that the life that moves within the bee, the flower, and the tree is as important as that of my neighbor. I like to think, reason, and feel that all that is sentient, as proponents of deep ecology would have it, has the right to life. We are discovering today that trees “feel,” that the “intelligence” of animals is far more complex than previously theorized, and that even matter is “vibrant” and possesses “agency.” If we accept and abide by this politics of sincerity, these discoveries should make us question our domination. I believe that the underbelly of the Anthropocene is “nature” and the multiplicity of these other life forms without which the human is also doomed to his or her own destruction.
KO: Your work on fog collecting and environmental education would appear to many as a marriage of engineering, anthropology, and humanitarianism, but you bring a poetic sensibility to it, embracing fog aesthetics and the importance of humanistic approaches to problem solving and living a meaningful life. To what extent do you rely on your academic training and intellectual life to sustain you in your work?
JB: Anthropology ushered me to consider the myriad ways humans have created and molded their CultureNature and the way CultureNature has in its turn molded humans. Ethnographies describe how groups, communities, and nations make sense of and inhabit their world, and how this very world also shapes their destinies. I find that reading ethnographies, and the list is long, widens the realm of possibilities and creates sensibility toward difference and similarities. Recently I’ve started reading more about new discoveries in the realm of physics, and I am privileged to have a mathematician as a partner, which helps me understand the much larger scientific and intellectual contexts in which these ethnographies evolve. Nurturing a sort of “positive curiosity” is my way of staying connected to new ideas and understanding sensibilities.
KO: From Flint, Michigan, to rural Morocco, again and again we see massive inequities in access to clean water, and therefore pronounced inequities in the human rights enjoyed by disadvantaged communities. Do you see projects like yours as vehicles for social justice?
JB: Viewing the project through lenses of decreasing size allows me to see how it connects at each level with external elements. From a macroscopic point of view, the Boutmezguida fog project is a very small initiative, treating water scarcity with a local and seasonal solution. It is just one example among many innovative initiatives focused on fog, dew, rain catchments, systems of filtration and reuse. We serve 16 villages by harvesting fog water, and we use gravity to deliver it through 29 kilometers of piping, and this meets the water needs of 110 households and their livestock. A microscopic view permits me to focus on the internal organization with its total staff of 10 people. This initiative takes all of our collective energy and coordinated efforts: planning and searching for funds, establishing partnerships for research and development, doing maintenance work on the system, managing this new water regime, and dealing with administrative issues. All the unexpected imponderables of everyday life place a continuing responsibility on the shoulders of the staff. Symbolically the spirit and message of the initiative are very strong. In this age when everyone is searching for alternatives to large-scale resource management, our project illustrates that there are creative, low-tech, and locally relevant solutions to consider as inspirational models.
KO: As you have observed, fog harvesting has enabled community members to remain on their ancestral land instead of migrating to often harsh and demeaning urban environments. Do you think creating harmony between the social and the natural, and focusing on personal or small-scale solutions, offers a sustainable path for all of us?
JB: The success of our fog-harvesting CloudFisher projects, akin to other locally embedded initiatives, offers proof that small-scale and locally meaningful action is impactful and wise in its resource uses. For one, the global movement of goods on this planet has debilitating environmental effects. If we can imagine ways to produce and consume locally—as have homo sapiens for millennia—we will reduce our energy footprint. It is, of course, naive to think that at this time in history, environmental concerns will override economic interests; there still is too much resistance to changing the business-as-usual paradigm that shaped the history of the 20th century. There is, however, hope that we can adopt more environmentally friendly models, and the small-scale, locally embedded and managed, emerges as the most logical step.
This is not to say that our realm of knowledge should be restricted to the local, but that our realm of action should be rooted in the local. Fog harvesting is a successful illustration in this regard; it not only has connected these Amazigh communities to a vital resource but has created the opportunity for them to remain on their land, and for some to return home from hard living conditions elsewhere, thereby creating a sustainable path to living harmoniously in this microcosm. The lesson learned for practitioners in the field of development is to act with and use local resources, to work with local communities who know perfectly well how to adapt to their environment, and to use modern knowledge as an added value and not as the final or definitive response.
KO: As we hear ever-louder warnings of coming water shortages around the globe, fog harvesting seems like a potential solution for many communities. Do you worry that this will inevitably lead to the commodification and commercialization of fog water?
JB: Risk is inherent in any initiative, and fog collection is no exception in this sense. While the potential of over-exploitation of fog is there, fog is not an everyday phenomenon. I strongly believe that its ephemeral nature makes it an unappealing business venture. While we need more research and development that may allow for the systematic siphoning of all of the water molecules within fog, the state of the art in this field is still embryonic, considering the papers presented during the latest International Fog and Dew Association conference. What is more widespread is in fact just the passive system of wind pushing the fog through the nets. Design improvement has mostly been targeting the nets and the infrastructure. Even if someday a net’s daily yield attains 50 liters per square meter (at this time the highest yield at our Boutmezguida site is 22 liters per square meter), climatologists still maintain that this will not hurt the other biotopes that use fog as their water source. So I’d like to revisit the idea of scale, and emphasize that to live in harmony in and with our world, our future responses to water scarcity must embrace small-scale solutions and embeddedness in place.