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Withering palms

Mauritania, on the west coast of Africa, has an interior with a large deposit of iron ore, nomads, oases, hundreds of thousands of date palms, and an awful lot of Sahara sand. Water, a scarce commodity, is the key to power.

The injection of a modern waterpump technology in the sixties into an already restive oasis society, according to a report in Ceres (No. 76), has served to widen the gap between rich and poor date palm farmers.

At Atar oasis in 1965 there were about 10,000 date palm plantations. Most were in good shape with compara­tively short trees set out in regular lines edged by simple irrigation ditches.

For centuries water had been raised from an underground table by the chadouf, which is a long pole on a central spindle with a heavy stone as a counter­weight at one end and a water container at the other. The chadouf cannot draw water from a depth greater than the length of the pole and rope combined - about four metres.

A succession of drought years in the sixties saw the water table at Atar drop from four metres below the surface in 1960 to 20 metres. Only those plantations served by water pumps have survived.

The poorer farmers who could not afford to switch to motor pumps watched their plantations scorch and die. Then those with pumps faced anothe rproblem: maintenance.

The only pump maintenance shop is state-owned and employs only one man. There is no charge for repairs but the Ceres report describes the shop as 'depressing'. It says nothing is done to salvage parts from pumps beyond repair and that the place is 'inadequate for normal repairs'. This really means that when a pump breaks down the farmer has to buy another one or go out of business.

Possible solutions? Improve the repair shop, teach elementary pump mainten­ance to the planters, charge a fair price for repairs and ensure there is responsible supervision of the pump servicing facili­ties. But after that it's not so straight­forward.

Atar is solidly controlled by the rich palm farmers who are not interested in water exploration or projects to improve irrigation to the drier and poorer plant­ations. Why should they be? In 1965 there were about 400,000 palms at Atar; today there are about half as many trees; and, not surprisingly, crop prices are higher.