New Internationalist

Web Page Of Facts About The Western Sahara Including Landuse, Health, Population, Economy And Human Rights.

Issue 297

WESTERN SAHARA -
THE FACTS

WESTERN SAHARA IS A LAND AND A PEOPLE SPLIT BY WAR. Social statistics are difficult to obtain: Morocco makes a point of not separating the figures for this 'assimilated province', while gathering data about its refugees is not Polisario's top priority. What facts there are portray a country with rich natural resources and a small (though fast growing) population. But it is also a country in which war has put human development on hold.

LAND

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NATURAL RESOURCES

[image, unknown] PHOSPHATES: THE RESERVES AT BOUCRAA, which the Moroccans have been exploiting since 1975, have been estimated at 1.7 billion tonnes and reserves elsewhere in Western Sahara at 10 billion tonnes. Morocco would be the world's largest exporter of phosphates (the key component of modern agricultural fertilizer) even if it lost Western Sahara.Photo by CHRIS BRAZIER

[image, unknown] FISH: THE FISHING GROUNDS off the coast of Western Sahara are possibly the richest in the world. In 1995 Morocco concluded its latest deal with the European Union under which 477 mainly Spanish fishing vessels are allowed to fish there for four years in return for $650 million from Brussels.

[image, unknown] OIL: GEOLOGICAL SURVEYS have indicated significant oil reserves but these are not yet exploited.

POPULATION

POPULATION IS A HIGHLY contentious and complex issue in Western Sahara, where Moroccans receive large incentives to settle in the desert while Polisario promotes as high a birth rate as possible among its refugee population so as to help its cause.

WHEN THE SPANISH LEFT AND THE MOROCCANS invaded in 1975 about half the Saharawi population fled to become refugees and the other half remained under Moroccan rule. Waves of Moroccan settlers have moved in, encouraged by economic incentives including tax-free salaries and subsidized food. The overall number of 200,000 'settlers' does not include the Moroccan Army, which is reputed to have about 120,000 soldiers stationed in Western Sahara.

There is no official data on the indigenous Saharawi population in the Occupied Territories but assuming a starting population of 40,000 and the average Moroccan population growth rate of 2.2% per annum, there would be 65,000 living there in 1997.

In the refugee camps Polisario has campaigned for population growth and contraception remains unavailable. The goal has been to boost numbers in the liberation army and of Saharawis generally. The campaign has been so startlingly successful that the population has more than quadrupled in two decades: there are now 168,000 people, though at least 20,000 of them are in the Army and 10,000 are studying in friendly countries such as Algeria, Cuba, Libya and Spain.

HEALTH & NUTRITION

GENERAL LEVELS OF HEALTH are high for a refugee population, reflecting the efficient organization of the camps and a well-educated people. But there are still significant nutritional and sanitation deficiencies and an outbreak of cholera has recently been reported.

THERE ARE NO FOOD SHORTAGES but considerable nutritional problems, resulting especially from the lack of fresh vegetables. There are also high rates of rheumatism and eye complications such as cataracts. infant mortality graph

*46% of children have low height for their age due to nutritional deficiencies.

*10% of under-fives suffer from acute malnutrition, 46% from chronic malnutrition.

*71% of children under five have moderate to severe anaemia.

*19% of women have poor Vitamin C status.

THE QUALITY OF THE DIET IS POOR: one family in four eats only one or two items in a day. The theoretical nutritional value of the food ration distributed covers only 80% of requirements, not least because food aid is not supplied for soldiers at the front, only for residents of the camps. But because the soldiers have to eat, each refugee's individual ration is reduced.

ECONOMY

MAINTAINING ITS OCCUPATION of Western Sahara has been a huge drain on Morocco's economy.

THE DAILY COST OF THE WAR TO MOROCCO was estimated at one million dollars a day as long ago as the mid-1980s. Photo by CHRIS BRAZIER

*Civilian expenditures in the four provinces of Western Sahara totalled about $2.5 billion between 1976 and 1989 or about $180 million a year. These were aimed at winning hearts and minds as well as improving the infrastructure for exporting fish and phosphates.

*In 1995 Morocco announced it was building 10,000 new houses in L'ayoun at a cost of $40 million ­ two-thirds of the population lives in L'ayoun province.

This expenditure, together with a reduction in aid, has contributed to Morocco's increased debt and decline in domestic investment, and may have encouraged it to be more receptive to the UN peace plan.

*THE STANDARD DAILY cost of the MINURSO operation has been around $100,000 a day since 1991, giving a notional total cost to the UN of around $250 million.

HUMAN RIGHTS

PRISONERS OF WAR [image, unknown]

POLISARIO HELD 2,155 MOROCCAN PRISONERS of war at the time of the 1991 ceasefire. It then released 200 of the most infirm but these were not accepted back by Morocco until 1996. Morocco is now refusing to accept a further 65 infirm prisoners whom Polisario has agreed to release.

Morocco claims that the 66 Saharawis it recently released were its only remaining prisoners of war. However, it denied the existence of the 66 before their release. Polisario believes there could be as many as 170 more.

TORTURE

HUNDREDS OF SAHARAWIS 'DISAPPEARED' upon their arrest by Moroccan security forces in 1975 and there have been further waves of detentions since. The existence of these prisoners was denied throughout the 1980s by Morocco, which nevertheless released over 200 of them at the time of the UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991. The 200 released had been kept in secret detention centres and had been tortured.

The Moroccan authorities deny the existence of the rest of the 'disappeared' but based on testimony from family members and those released in 1991, it is believed that at least 526 Saharawis are still 'disappeared'.

Contents

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