RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Regional and local leaders in eastern Morocco met this week with residents and civil society groups after months of protests over a water management plan set to take effect later this year.

Thousands in the town of Figuig stopped paying water bills and have taken to the streets since November to protest a municipal decision transitioning drinking water management from the town to a regional multi-service agency.

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Residents worry the policy changes could jeopardize their livelihoods and, in turn, the community’s future. Carrying signs and chanting that their water is not for sale, they have suggested the plan is a pretext to privatization — a claim authorities deny.

Figuig relies entirely on a below-ground aquifer for drinking and irrigation water, the latter flowing through a traditional canal system dating back centuries. Though both come from the same source, the new policy applies only to drinking water.

Anger grew in February when movement leader Mohamed Brahmi was arrested for threatening the pacha, his brother and fellow activist El Mostafa Brahmi said. An appeals court handed him an eight-month prison sentence last week for incitement, insulting an official and participating in an unauthorized gathering.

Morocco Groundwater Protests

Women take part in a protest against a government plan to change the management of drinking water, in the oasis of Figuig, Morocco, Friday, March 8, 2024. Regional leaders in Morocco met Thursday, March 21, 2024 with residents of an oasis where many have staged protests over a water management plan. Thousands in the eastern Moroccan town of Figuig have demonstrated against their municipal council’s plan to to transition drinking water management to a regional multi-service agency. (AP Photo)

The protested plan is part of Morocco’s 2020 “National Drinking Water Supply and Irrigation Program” to build infrastructure, streamline water management and conserve as the country grapples with climate change, drought and groundwater depreciation.

Anxieties about future access and affordability center on provisions that allow for limited private sector investment, in spite of reassurances from authorities that reforms will not lead to price hikes or privatization. The municipality said in a January statement on Facebook that reforms would expand the “limited resources” of the current system, which has relied on outside assistance from the state to update water infrastructure, including treatment plants.

Rachid Zenati, the region’s general secretary, confirmed those plans and noted the governing board will include local representatives to manage the multi-service agency as required under law.

“There’s confusion and a deficit in communication,” he said of the pushback, noting Figuig’s traditional irrigation system wouldn’t be affected.

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He said the governor met with Figuig residents and civil society on Thursday.

Though protests have been kept to a small town in one of the four regions where Morocco has introduced the policy, the country ultimately wants to expand reforms to each of its 12 regions. It started implementing them, including in the East region, last year. Figuig is one of the region’s eight provinces.

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