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Shutting the City Down: A Fight for the Environment

February 10, 2016

The growth of Morocco’s processing sector depends on the nascent coal-fired thermal power plant just outside of Safi, a city in western Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean. Safi has already been facing ecological problems that have warned the beginning of a series of disasters. Air pollution, rise of new chronic diseases, the degradation of aquatic life, and decrease of water surfaces are signalling a saturation of the ecosystem. For Safi’s inhabitants, the reason for this, with no doubt, is the chemical complex built in 1965. “There is a pipeline coming from the phosphate-processing plant which dumps all liquid waste in the ocean. We are observing increasing levels of acidity which is exterminating fish and radically transforming the ecological milieu,” said Salaheddine, an activist of a local environmental organization.

The industrial complex contains petrochemical plants, a chloride factory, several phosphate, pyrrhotite, and ammonia processing plants, sugar-milling capacity, and cement factories. Ownership in this industrial sector is private, with the exception of the phosphate-chemical fertilizer that is owned by the government. The government agreed on constructing the new power plant to generate electrical power for a new fish-processing complex project called Haliopolis.

Haliopolis is tailored to increase Morocco’s fish processing capacity to two million by 2020. The project design includes a complex that will house companies involved in processing, packaging, logistics and research, and it aims at increasing the competitiveness of companies in the sector, according to Mohamed Bouayad, president of the Agadir Haliopole association.

In the late 2000s, the inhabitants of the city begun to experience chronic health problems. However, the latest incident in 2011 in which the phosphorous chemical plant leaked gas fuelled popular rage. The leak created a pollution cloud and triggered respiratory illness among residents; it especially affected those who dwelled in the south of the city where the industrial zone is located. People demonstrated against new construction projects that will surely pollute the city even more. Despite the fact that the Moroccan state issued, back in 1997, a report that linked health problems to air pollution in Safi, the authorities continue denouncing the effects of chemical pollution on health and environment. The construction of this new power plant is worsening the situation.

Destructive Effects

To understand why Safi is against the new power plant, one should know the history of the project. Before making Safi the place hosting the power plant, the project was initially proposed to the City Council of Agadir. The council quickly rejected the proposal arguing that it will negatively impact the tourism sector. Likewise, when the proposal was suggested to the city of Tiznit, civil society actors and politicians successfully mobilized against it. This project came as a result of one of the major state strategic plans pertaining to energy use and attracting investments. For Safi, the question became: Why do they have to accept what other towns have refused? The danger posed by the power plant technology is two-fold. Firstly, the environment is under danger because the plant will use seawater to cool the boilers where the coal will be burnt. The same water will then be poured back into the sea. Secondly, the released thermal radiation will form a layer on the water’s surface, which will reduce the amount of sunlight penetrating the sea and the level of oxygen in water. Fishermen in Safi argue that the pipes built since 1965 as a part of the industrial complex below the water’s surface have already had a negative impact on aquatic life; this will only deteriorate the biodiversity of marine flora and fauna further. Ironically, after the deterioration of fisheries in Safi, Haliopolis industrial center is just outside of Agadir, a few kilometers far from Safi, the same city to refuse hosting the thermal plant.

Moroccan government claims that this project will put the country on the lead of African production on clean energy. It is also said that the new thermal plant will reduce CO2 emissions. However, the problem lies in two points. First, producing coal energy doesn’t only depend on how much CO2 emissions it generates. There are other toxic heavy metals released during the process. The problem is exacerbated further by the fact that sewage and waste of the plant find its way into the ocean without being treated. Second, using clean coal technology doesn’t eliminate CO2 emissions from which Safi has been suffering for years. The trauma of sulphur dioxide leaks from the phosphate refinery plant can be lived again when the new power plant is constructed only seven kilometers from the city. Safi would have to put up with more pollution and face acid rain and smog.

Structural Destruction Policies

Saving the ecosystem is not merely about preserving the soil, air, and sea. It is rather maintaining the balance in the relationship between humankind and nature. Effects of industrial modernization in Safi have been alarming. When the chemical plants and fisheries were opened, people saw in them an opportunity to work. Although work conditions were difficult and didn’t provide them with health and safety provisions, many believed that the government would intervene to ensure the physical well-being of its citizens. Against the will of the city, the government continued to permit foreign investors to install plants and to wreck the remaining possibilities of living with diseases that will not disappear any soon.

Safi, until late 2000s, was the model of Morocco’s lucrative fish trade. The fishing sector in Morocco accounts directly for more than 60,000 jobs and contributes about two to three percent to gross domestic product. Morocco’s fish catch in marine waters was the largest in Africa, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. While the fisheries of Safi are closing due to the ecological disaster, why is the government investing in another fish-processing project and ignoring the effects of its investment policy in Safi?

What is at stake? The Moroccan state has been adopting a strategy of relocating its problems to other sites. The state betokened the ecological crisis in Safi to be one of unemployment. This has been supported by the investment policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which have promised the Moroccan government for more loans if they follow their recommendations on investment policies and state services. The state sought to look at the ecological problem as a problem of unemployment and adopted a policy of the hand that strikes and the other that heals. Salaheddine explained that “when Safi inhabitants lost their jobs and suffered health problems, the government discourse didn’t accommodate their immediate needs. Rather, we are witnessing a policy of massive exploitation of human labor and nature. The problem will not be solved by providing the jobless employment in a new place.” Many in Safi believe that the worse is yet to come.

Shutting the City Down

Before the new deal of COP21 was signed in Paris in December 2015, Morocco’s prince Moulay Rachid announced on behalf of the King Mohamed VI that Morocco will be organizing the COP22 in Marrakech in 2016. The prince’s speech outlined the strategic and political will Morocco is demonstrating to preserve its ecology. At the same time of this highly celebrated international event, Safi’s residents were ramping the streets, calling for shutting the city down. Is the idea even conceivable? For the everyday dwellers of Safi, this is the only solution to remain alive. “There is nothing we can do at this point, and frankly, even if the government intervenes, the environment will need years to heal itself,” said Salaheddine. Shutting the city down means leaving behind yet another black spot in the history of extreme ecological exploitation which resulted in displacement of people. That is the perspective of the ecologists. The ordinary dwellers see their lives in danger as they enter a cycle of socioeconomic and environmental instability that threatens almost everything in their lives.

Without civil society work on-ground, the result of these international talks will always be insufficient. The endless arguing and negotiating result in a non-binding resolution that leaves power and profit in the hands of those who are destroying the planet. Hence, high-profile meetings will conceal the reality of a destroyed ecology and not result in the outcomes people need.

Shutting the city down is a moment of reckoning. Without significant changes, we can only expect to witness serious consequences. Despite being at the door of leaving behind a damaged habitat, there is still hope. There are thousands of people who are fighting to form solidarity networks with other cities. There are advocacy groups who have come to Safi to see what the effects of chemical-plants and thermal projects have been on the communities. Thanks to the availability of information, it is getting more and more difficult for the actions and effects of big corporations to go unnoticed by the public. As environmental damage is a lived reality, people can continue to weaken the corporate power. Perhaps, the first step is to shut Safi down.


1 Comment

  1. Muhammad Asghar

    I am not clear about how “a layer of thermal radiation forms over the sea surface”, and how “the layer” prevents sunlight penetrating through it. I do have a somewhat scientific background but may be the author has more pertinent information. Could the author shed some light on these aspects?

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