The Rir and the Water
The Rir and the Water
THE RHIR AND WATER
The Rhir area has had a spectacular series of rescue operations. I have already described how the French arrived waving a magic wand. In 1856, before the French made their first boring, there were 300 wells irrigating 360,000 date-palms. In 1924 there were 1033 wells and 1,610,000 palms. In the same year a new well at Mraier added its incredible quota of 8500 gallons per minute to the existing supply. By 1930 the total had reached 75,000 gallons per minute.
Ever since the early twenties the Rhir area had been regarded as an El Dorado. All that seemed necessary to become rich overnight was to sink a well and plant palms. Adventurers, fortune-hunters and capitalists arrived in shoals to cash in on the apparently inexhaustible water-resources of the Rhir district. But the result was bankruptcy. The drain on the water-supply was too heavy. Fresh borings no longer added to the total output but merely drew water away from other sources, A well sunk at Sidi Rachid ruined the Ghamra oasis, then the Sidi Rachid oasis lost its water to Tamerna, which in turn fell victim to new plantations 'downstream.' As was the case at Ouargla the palm-groves of the Oued Rhir began to
migrate. They moved northwards. The authorities tried to stop the rot by forbidding any fresh wells but it was too late. Pumps were brought in and the water-distribution was tightened up, but demand and supply were completely out of touch.
For the Rhir district there was only one hope left: water from the Alb. Savornin thought it unlikely that there was sandstone of this particular formation under the Oued Rhir. Other geologists were more optimistic. But the Algerian Water Board with its limited resources could not risk a deep boring. Instead at Tamelhat, south of Toggourt, it acquired an oil-drilling which had been unproductive and turned it into an artesian well. At Tamelhat the Alb is as much as 6000 feet down and the water gushes out with tremendous force equivalent to a column 1000 feet high. Information gained from another oil-drilling enabled the Algerian Water Board to sink a well of their own at Sidi Khaled at the northern end of the Rhir district, and further borings have been made on the North-South axis between Sidi Khaled and Tamelhat. The work of rescuing the Rhir oasis is the latest but presumably not the last chapter in the success story of Savornin's Sea.
It is a commonplace that oil and politics are inextricably mixed. But in the Sahara water is also inseparable from politics. I looked through the earliest reports from the 1850 in which the hydrologiste described their admirable work in the Rhir district. They distributed wells like prizes. The second French well in the Sahara, for example, was presented to Sidi Mohammed el Aid Ben el Hadj Ali, the head of a religious fraternity. This powerful marabout lived in the Temacine oasis in a monastery called Tamelhat. If the engineers chose to drill nearby, it was not from any geological considerations. "Sidi Mohammed had given us clear evidence that his sympathies were with us. His influence extended even amongst the Tuareg and beyond as far as the Sudan. It was essential to our plans for the future that this marabout should be committed still more closely to the French cause. It is hard to imagine just how powerful he was ; perhaps the nearest parallel is with the medieval bishops of the Holy Roman Empire."
The French water policy paid dividends. The 'Bahar Taht el Erd' or 'The Sea under the Earth' never failed to produce the desired effect when the French engineers conjured it out of the ground . The natives gave the first wells names like 'well of Peace, of Friends, of Thankfulness, of Happiness, of Obedience, of Reasonable Men and of Heartfelt Warning'. Remembering the Arabic saying 'Kiss the hand you cannot cut off,' one is not inclined to take these epithets all too seriously, but the fact is that within a year of the first well having been drilled the officers of the Arab Bureau were able to move freely and unmolested in an area which had been notoriously unsafe. It is also a fact that at the beginning of the century General Laperrine had no difficulty in levying three Camel Corps amongst the Chaamba to restore order in the desert. The Chaamba nomads used Ouargla and the Rhir oases as bases. They were thus invested with some of the moral authority which the French had acquired from their artesian wells and they profited from the economic benefits which the natives associated with this authority.