Coastal Past, Coastal Future

The other week I paid another visit to Safi, this time to deliver a lecture and speak to a class at Cadi Ayyad University.  One of my Fulbright hosts, Samira Idllalene, teaches here, and I spoke to her environmental law class about coastal change, and how we make choices about the future. This lecture informed by my work on and around Louisiana’s coastal master plan. I gave a second lecture to a larger audience on climate change and sea level rise, and their impacts to coasts in Morocco and around the world. Both talks were delivered in a combination of English and French- the latter of which I’m not nearly as bad in as I used to be.

In the classroom at Cadi Ayyad

Hearing from students during this visit, and other university trips, has been one of the highlights of my time here in Morocco. I was asked questions about how tidal marshes would respond to sea level rise, ways to reduce the impacts of climate change, coastal relocation and the need for better leadership on climate change. If you were curious, one student asked to me to explain my president- and another told me that he thought my country was the worst place. And to be fair, while there are many things I love about my country, it is also from perfect.  I stated that leaving the Paris accords was the wrong thing to do. As for explaining our president- well, I simply have no idea what that guy is thinking most of the time.

The fishing port in Safi.

During this visit, I saw the ports around Safi. They are fascinating, and a reminder of all of the complexities of the coastal zone. Safi’s fishing port is one of the largest in Morocco. Morocco has long had abundant fisheries, a product of the phosphorus that runs from its rivers (more on that later), and ocean currents that bring more nutrient rich waters to the surface. There are bright blue boats that clog the fishing port’s waterway, bringing tons and tons of sardines ashore. During the day, you can see these boats out to sea, and watch them return at evening. On land there are crates upon crates of fish lined up, many on ice- some out in the sun.  I am told that the higher quality fish head to Europe, those with lower standards for quality and preparation stay in Morocco.

An expert cook!

Since Samira and I were there at mid-day, we stopped for lunch. There’s a little spot at the end of a strip of boats where a guy takes fresh caught sardines, coats them in salt, and throws them on the grill. The taste is vaguely reminiscent of the sardines you might pull out of a can in the US, but the meat is both firmer and easier to eat, and the taste is entirely fresher, sweeter. There was something about this whole experience that reminded me a bit of Stienbeck’s Cannery Row- a bit seaside poetry- but without modern California’s financial excess and oversized prints of yesteryear.

Safi’s Medina

Safi has a wonderful medina, which like many in Morocco is a network old alleyways, crammed houses and apartment buildings. The ocean is adjacent to, basically inaccessible from the medina. Between the two lies the industrial port- which mostly handles Morocco’s phosphorous trade. Morocco has the world’s largest phosphorus reserves and exports this critical component of fertilizer across the world – nourishing (and sometimes over-nourishing) more than its own coast.

Morocco is preparing to move its phosphorous exporting facilities to a much larger port about 10 miles to the south. That would allow the city of Safi to reopen the old city to the sea, improving the quality of life for locals, making the place more appealing to tourists, and likely attracting higher income residents and visitors. The plan is reminiscent of New Orleans’ plan to reopen parts of its riverfront by shifting some of its port and industrial facilities. While the plan might seem green for Safi, it will be a major change down the coast.

The new port is a vast structure of concrete and steel. When given a tour with faculty from Cadi Ayyad, our size seemed miniscule compared to the size of the breakwaters and docks. Jutting out into the ocean almost 3/4 of a mile, this structure will almost certainly change the hydrodynamics of the region- changing regional currents, reflecting incoming waves- potentially increasing erosion nearby. Below the surface, the port will be 52 feet deep, deeper than the Mississippi River’s current navigable depth.

The new phosphorus exporting port south of Safi

Earlier during that tour, our team of geologists toured the oceanside of the old port. We had to walk through a seawall, and then climb over boulders, and concrete wave breaks to get a good view. It was definitely a rough a tumble geology field trip, but no one died, and we checked with the port security beforehand. This industrial coast is part of an older story, centuries ago there was a beach here. In the early 20th century, the French built a jetty to break waves at the harbor. This jetty changed the flow of water along the coast, and with that, movement of sand along the shore.  Sand could flow away, but no new sand could migrate through. As a result, the beach eroded away, and waves crashed along the port. Instead of a beach in front of the city, there is now a seawall. At the far side of the port sits a large historic building- a remnant of stately Portuguese mansion or government buildings. But the building’s foundation is being eroded by waves, which are made larger by the loss of the beach.

Inside the port. People and cars for scale.

This contrast between modern construction and historic buildings made me wonder about the future of our coastal history.  After the workshop Dr. Idllalene and I took a walk on the beach about 15 miles north of town and saw the Sidi Chackal Mirabeau.  These Mirabeaus are religious lookouts- built for saints, spirits, and holy figures who kept a lookout over the sea.  Sidi Chackal been used by Muslims for many years, and Samira tells me that it was also used by Morocco’s Jews. The sanctuary is beautiful, a stark stone building with a dome on this remote stretch of beach. It sits on a large block of stone and anchored at high tide line. The foundation is solid, but the forces of erosion must visit nearly ever day.

Seaside in Safi, the eroded beach has been replaced by wave breaks. The historic Portuguese house is in the background.

The first time I ever saw buildings that had been swept away by the sea was in fall of 2006. I had come to New Orleans for a job interview at Tulane, and my future boss wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into if I moved to post-Katrina New Orleans. In the lower 9th ward, I saw floor plans exposed to the open air. You could see where there were rooms, and where walls once stood. There were tile floors, interrupted by a pipe that had connected to a toilet or a sink. And there were driveways leading to what once was a garage. I’ve revisited the 9th ward many times since then. While there’s been some rebuilding, these stark floorplans still remain. I’ve often wondered, are these now “ruins,”? In America?

Earlier this fall, Venice Italy flooded to the distress of many. History lovers across the world must wonder what is next? Alexandria, Egypt? Tokyo, Japan? New York City? The rural American southeast? Mexico?

Sidi Chackal, by the water

I tried to process all of this during my train ride home from Safi. I kept coming back to the students in my lectures. I was so excited that during one lecture I was asked about how tidal marshes would respond to high rates of sea-level rise – the topic of my PhD. During another lecture, I was asked about coastal relocation. In a trip to another university earlier this fall, a student asked for my opinion on the climate activist Greta Thunberg. These is another important part of our coastal future – students who are interested in our changing world, and who view this planet with a deep seriousness. Fulbright scholarships often conjure up the image of a bespectacled professor reading old manuscripts in stately libraries. Reflecting on Sidi Chackal, New Orleans, and so many other historic places, it seems that if we want to keep being able to study the past, we have to look to the future.  

Students from Cadi Ayyad and the maritime academy.

One response to “Coastal Past, Coastal Future”


    Viry viry good joop and viry interesting


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