“Everyone involved has to be part of local development”
Climate change, renewable energies, and empowerment for women and youth, these are the main aims of the association "The Human Touch" in Ouarzazate, southern Morocco, where a solar energy plant is situated. In the following interview, the association’s general secretary, Fatima Ahouli, explains how climate change affects the local population and why it is so important to involve residents in the planning of renewable energy projects.
Sandra Nenninger: How would you describe your organisation?
Fatima Ahouli: The Human Touch was founded on 19 May 2014 in Ouarzazate. It was the result of a field study about the social impact of the solar energy plant, which I undertook with some colleagues. During our field study we realised that there is a huge need to raise awareness in the region and that locals need support concerning social, cultural, and economic aspects of these developments. To start with, we noticed that there are many women artisans in the area, yet they lack the skills to market their products. Our initial idea was to help them find channels to sell their goods.
After that, we discovered other approaches to improve the lives of the communities around Ouarzazate. We therefore decided not to focus solely on marketing local products but to engage in the empowerment of women and young people, as well as in capacity building and measures to raise awareness about renewable energies and climate change – in short, in any aspect that may help develop local communities. That was our basic aim.
To begin with, we were three women. Today we have 16 members, the majority of which is female.
Tell us about your "Winter Touch" programme.
Last winter, there was much flooding in the region and many villages needed help. We therefore created “The Winter Touch” (in reference to our name, The Human Touch). Through this we collected money, nutrition, clothes, and other materials and distributed them to affected villages. We split the programme into three different phases, with each phase covering three villages that are vulnerable to flooding.
Do you think the floods are the result of climate change?
Yes, the flooding is one of the effects of climate change. The region used to experience lengthy droughts, and last year’s floods were unprecedented. The effects were powerful and inescapable. I believe this is an outcome of climate change in the South.
For you, were the floods the main reason to work towards strengthening local participation in the Ouarzazate solar energy plant? Where there other reasons?
Before, I hadn’t been aware of renewable energies, and I only learned about them while working with Germanwatch. When I realised that our region is affected by climate change this inspired me to do my own research.
Are there other examples of how climate change impacts the region?
We did a video project on how climate change affects some traditional activities. One example is the bamboo industry, which is one of the main sources of income for local men; another is traditional bread production, which is a major source of income for women. Both rely heavily on water: Bamboo needs a lot of irrigation and to bake bread you need firewood. We looked into how droughts impact the incomes in those two areas – and found that, due to lack of water, raw materials are becoming more rare and expensive and living conditions more precarious. This is one effect climate change has on the region.
How do the locals view the solar energy project – or renewable energies in general?
As I said before, I’m an ordinary citizen of Morocco – someone who doesn’t know a lot about climate change or renewable energies. In order to better understand renewable energies and climate change you have to educate yourself – or you have to go to university where, however, the approach is more academic than practical.
Local people don’t know about climate change. They don’t know about renewable energies. Therefore, when local people were told about the solar energy project, nobody said anything about climate change or that it would benefit the environment. The project was presented as something that would create jobs and boost the local economy.
The local authorities presented all kinds of figures that the people didn’t really understand. What locals gathered was that the project would result in jobs for young people, economic growth, and better infrastructure. Overall, the information was presented in a manner that was way above what local people could grasp, considering their educational background. All of this created very high expectation towards local authorities and project developers, yet it did nothing to introduce the project to the people in a good way. From the very beginning, expectations were high. Then, as time went by, people realised that employment was only available for highly skilled workers or university graduates. Local youths, on the other hand, were only hired for some construction jobs, which often lasted no longer than two or three months.
Still, as we found during our research project with Germanwatch, local people tend to be very proud that such a project is undertaken in their hometown, in their region.
Why are the people so proud of the solar energy project?
On the one hand, expectations towards the project were unrealistic. Still, people accept it, and they are proud that it is here and not elsewhere. The project creates some kind of hope within the region and, in the long run, may help boost the local economy.
You mentioned the lack of knowledge about renewable energies and climate change. What do local people need to know about this?
The first step is the political will to help these people get a good education. People need education, people need schools. Many villages don’t have access to schools, many communities are far from the centres of education. Many people lack knowledge not because they are lazy or unwilling to learn but because they are illiterate. Our education system does not provide good education and has to be improved. What we need is access to information – free access for everyone. And we need equitable access to local natural resources.
In your opinion, what would be a good way to spread information?
First of all, there is the question of who will provide the information. People or organisations in question should be familiar with the socio-cultural conditions of target communities, as well as with the subject matter. What we need first of all is local capacity building. We need to equip able local people with tools, techniques, materials, channels, networks, and budgets. Once we have competent people on the ground and good logistics, we will be able to deliver the information in ways that are intelligible to local people. This means the educational, socio-economic, and linguistic background of the target group has to be taken into account.
Who should do this – MASEN (the company in charge of the solar energy project), the government, or NGOs such as yours?
No one should be excluded, everyone should participate – because everyone is responsible: MASEN, the project developers, are responsible for the development of villages near the project; the authorities and the government are responsible for the education system, health facilities, and services; local civil society is responsible for bringing together all social actors in order to develop local communities.
This is something of a triangle centred on public interest. Everyone involved has to be part of local development.
Thank you very much!
Interview by Sandra Nenninger.