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On her first trip to Morocco, University of New Mexico archaeology student Emily Hayes-Rich was struck by the resemblance of the ancient khettara irrigation system to the acequias in her northern New Mexico hometown of Pojoaque.
Now, the 24-year-old master’s student has won a Fulbright grant to spend nine months in Morocco researching the waterways at the edge of the Sahara.
Hayes-Rich will also study Arabic in Marrakech and work with a water rights organization.
“Variations of this (irrigation) system are found all throughout the Middle East and around the world,” she said. “Many organizations are working to restore them because of their cultural importance. It was the source of life for these communities, and allowed them to thrive in the desert for thousands of years.”
The khettara system of underground tunnels and wells dates back centuries in rural Morocco.
Many of the systems have been abandoned in favor of modern water delivery techniques.
The aspiring archaeologist first encountered the North African canals during an Arabic study abroad program as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
She stayed on for three months after the program ended to learn more about Moroccan irrigation for her honors thesis.
“I was always interested in archaeology, and I think my parents thought that I just wanted to be Indiana Jones,” Hayes-Rich said. “But it stuck with me as a career that’s mentally and physically challenging.”
The student researcher’s work will also be supported by grants from the local American Association of University Women chapter and the American Institute for Maghrib Studies.
Hayes-Rich said she looks forward to studying how carefully-designed irrigation systems can help support sustainable communities in arid climates.
“Water was really important in the building of Morocco,” Hayes-Rich said. “People really realize how important it will be to the future of the region.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.