Moroccan Hammams: Good for the skin, bad for the environment

Published February 8th, 2017 - 09:32 GMT
The interior of a traditional bath-house, a centuries-old communal gathering place. (Shutterstock)
The interior of a traditional bath-house, a centuries-old communal gathering place. (Shutterstock)

Deforestation was one of the key topics discussed at the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties, which took place in Marrakech last November. 

While Morocco is not bottom of the global class in this field, one of the most-known Moroccan traditions - the hammam - consumes a considerable amount of wood. Mostly heated with wood, these public baths each use an average of one ton of wood per day, and firewood contributes to 76 percent of deforestation in the country.

Though no formal survey has yet been conducted, various sources in the associations of hammams' owners estimate there are between 6,000 and 12,000 of these spa facilities in the country. 

And the tradition is here to stay, according to Kadija Khadiri, who has been running the Rja Fellah hammam in Rabat for 36 years.

"Hammam bears no comparison with the shower," she told The New Arab. "People cannot do without it, absolutely not, and it is anchored in Moroccan culture with the same ancestral ritual. This tradition won't be lost. It’s a place where people come together."

Many voices try to bring the issue to the attention of the public. 

"There are too many hammams in cities. If all of them are heated with forest products, it contributes to deforestation. And that is the case today," said Mohammed Ellatifi, a former high-ranking official of the Waters and Forests authority and a former FAO expert. 

According his 2012 thesis, 53 percent of the firewood used in Morocco comes directly from the forest, with the remainder coming from private farms. Ellatifi is alarmed. 

"If we don't act quickly and intensely to stop this problem... to save what can still be saved, in 30 or 50 years, it will probably be too late, and the country will lose the last parts of its natural forests."

By law, only the Waters and Forests services are allowed to sell firewood, and only from selected areas of the national forest. But a study from the Renewable Energies Development Center (ADEREE) found out that just four percent of firewood used in Morocco comes from legal origins.

Travelling through forest regions such as Demnate, in the Middle Atlas, the conclusion is stark. The legal circuit is easily circumvented. Khalil, an illegal wood dealer, seats at a discreet café, and proudly receives calls from sellers and buyers of wood on this shadow trade circuit. Among his customers there are bakeries, private individuals - but mostly hammams. 

He says, despite acting illegally, he commits no great sin, doing "nothing really reprehensible" - and this is, above all, a means of subsistence.

"A long time ago, I was working for a wood businessman, but I won nothing, really nothing," he told The New Arab

"I noticed some of my friends worked as smugglers, where there was money. I chose to work with them, and it developed well." His sources are mostly small operations and sole-trading lumberjacks, who work purely for their family and own subsistence. None of them are getting rich from the trade, he says.

But to sustain the energy demand in more distant towns, the industry becomes more opaque. 

Hassan Boukili says he is a legal wood contractor from Azrou, a forested region of the Middle Atlas known for its century-old cedars

"You can buy and cut legally, and then, if you want to cut more and steal, you just have to go further, in another plot, cut the wood, bring it and mix [with the legal wood]," he told The New Arab

This trade sometimes involves the complicity of the authorities, both in the forest and on the roads, lumberjacks allege. 

"Nothing is legal," says Mehdi Khaldoun, a hammam owner in Marrakech, while talking about obtaining firewood. "In principle, when you fill a truck with wood, you need a document to certify the provenance. But we don't have anything like that, nothing. We don't have any document. The entire wood sector is like that. It is not organized."
Abdeladim Lhafi, high commissioner for Waters and Forests and a COP22 Commissioner, says logging traceability "needs to be improved". 

But he defends his record, insisting that his services "carry out 45,000 hectares of reforestation per year".

Naïm Nachid, who has been in charge of protected areas at the Waters and Forests administration since 2013, says "the forests as still viewed as a renewable resource which can be exploited". 

"But it is a limited resource," he adds.

To preserve this ancient tradition while transforming it into something sustainable, some business owners have transitioned away from wood-burning to heat their hammam. 

Mehdi Khaldoun, who owns the Masmoudi hammam in Marrakech, is one. With the help of an NGO project, "Sustainable Hammams", he has completely renovated his hammam to improve its insulation and bought a new generation furnace he fuels with agricultural waste, like olive pits or argan nut shells. 

"It is a self-regenerating resource," he says. 

When the NGO first talks with hammam owners about priorities, "the economic issue comes first", admits agro-economist Mathieu Goudet, the Sustainable Hammams coordinator. 

Environmental issues are only rarely mentioned, and even then as business owners complaining of "neighborhood problems".

"Some hammams are closed by the local authorities because of the neighborhood which complains. The hammams make small improvements and reopen afterwards," says Goudet. 

Khaldoun, however, is proud to have made a radical change. 

He invested 100,000 dirhams ($10,000) to improve the energy efficiency of his hammam. He expects a full return on his investment within five years - but regrets that the Moroccan government has failed to implement financial incentives to help hammam owners renovate their installations, and a clear majority remain heated by wood-burning. 
By Timothée Vinchon

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