Since getting to Azrou Issa in early November everything has hinged around catching rain. At that time it hadn’t rained for 7 months and we thought it must do so soon. The race was on to turn an enormous hole in front of the house, from which came the earth that was used as mortar for the walls, into a cistern for rainwater falling on the roof. It’s a job I’ve put off for three years, mainly because I wasn’t sure how to make it strong enough to resist tree roots without spending a fortune on it. I still wasn’t 100% certain how to go about it in November but after six drought years in the last eight our well, once nourished by a healthy trickle, is now on a drip and we are squarely in the same boat as our neighbours, as bound to the life-giving rains, or lack of them, as they are. We needed a big cistern and needed it desperately: ‘that bloody hole’ was suddenly at the top of the agenda.
We’d never seen this place looking so barren as late in the year as November, let alone December and now January. Usually there’s been enough of a watering by now for dormant weeds to have long since germinated and for there to be a carpet, albeit a threadbare one, of tiny, orchid-like wildflowers. Not so this year; not a single weed or wildflower to be seen anywhere, only a vista of dust before that of crashing surf. It’s strange to think there’s nothing but water for 2,000 miles, in one direction at least. Every day a neighbour is at the door, asking if there’s any rain on the way and I scan the internet forecasts to relay a gloomy negative.
My God, they are stoical here. But then they suppose they’re not going to die of thirst or starvation. Even when their cisterns are empty there is a communal well 2kms away that seems to be reliable. They take the donkeys down there, laden with jerrycans. So it’s not that bad. But although you may be able to water yourself and your animals from a well 2kms away you cannot water your fields with it. They ought now to be counting down the weeks to the first harvest but instead they’ve only just started ploughing.
Our well is more of a water mine than a standard well (main picture): 200ft (60m) deep with a lateral tunnel at 150ft (45m) that snakes off into a layer of wet clay. The water seeps out of the clay walls, runs along the tunnel floor and into the vertical shaft. It took three years to dig with a hammer and chisel, which makes it all the more painful that it has run dry. But on the other hand I am thankful that it has. My neighbours have not and will not ever see us splashing water extravagantly about our garden, but if our permaculture experiments produce growth they cannot now even suspect us of watering at night. And the more difficult it gets for us all here the stronger becomes the case for them all taking a little leap of faith and trying something new across their own land.
I don’t know what we’ll use the well for now. A potholing adventure for guests perhaps? A cure for claustrophobia? When you stand at the very bottom and look up, there is just a pinprick of light. Ayelen loves it down there.
Finishing the cistern, we lowered in a boom box and made a rain dance with some strange looking friends. And do you know what? The very next day it rained, 3″ (7.5cms), just as the forecast said it would! Now, a week later everything still looks barren, until you look down at the ground around your feet. And there they are, poking their little heads up through the terrible earth, all those tiny little seedlings reaching hungrily for light and life.
Just three months now until the next drought. There’s no time to waste; every man, woman, child, animal and plant living here knows this. It’s time for Ayelen and I to plant trees, lots of trees, quick growing desert trees with tap roots that will find their own water, leguminous trees that will inject nitrogen into our soil and provide support to other plants. In three years I don’t want to be able to see the ocean. I want a forest. We’ll start to cut them back after that and put in their place the species we want to end up with, the ones that’ll give us food, fodder, mulch and firewood.
Our neighbour, Si Mohamed, when he was helping me make our cistern strong enough to keep the roots of all these trees out, fell silent when I explained my forest plan.
“All your trees will come and drink at my cistern now.” He said, despondently.