Planet Sand and Marsad Drâa

the story behind

In 2014 we participated in the filming of Planet Sand, a documentary series on desertification directed by Thierry Berrod and produced by Mona Lisa Production, ARTE France, HEILONGJIANG TV, UNIVERSCIENCE, CNRS images and IRD. The series has been aired in France (Arte TV) in May and in Spain (La 2 and in June, but it will shown in 100 channels all over the world.

Some people wanted to know how we contacted the filmmaker and how we convinced him to show our projects on this documentary series, in fact, we did nothing, he just contacted us...

This is the story behind our participation in Planet Sand.


1. projects      

2. diffusion    

3. filming

4. epilogue


1. projects

habitable dunes

Inssaf Bourhim and Najlae Chairich (they were helped at the end by Elvis Osei) were students of mine at the National Architecture School of Tetouan (ENAT) between 2010 and 2012. Once they went to Rabat in 2013, they asked me for a subject to be treated in an architectural competition organised by Holcim, focus on sustainable development. I proposed them to study the case of the Fezouata palm grove in Amezrou, Zagora (Morocco), a place where we have been working during our study trip with the school in 2012 and 2013. That palm grove was about to be cut in two different areas because the advance of the dunes, despite the measures deployed by agriculture experts, consisting on a net made of palm branches.

Amezrou in the Fezouata palm grove, Zagora (Morocco)

The project was an opportunity to think about several issues that authorities from Zagora proposed us (the ENAT) to work on, but we never did it due to the lack of time.

In these regions, people consider that rammed earth houses are related to poverty and once they have some money, they prefer to build new houses on concrete blocks, even if they know it will be colder in winter and hotter in summer, the importance is to show they do not live any more in a poor house. Moreover, the population increase in emerging centres needs a response from two points of view, urban planning and architecture. How these extensions are going to affect the architectural heritage (the ksar) and the palm grove (sometimes these extension are done inside) and how the new houses will be built (materials and typology), are the main questions architects should think about. However, most of these new cities are planned as if they were a district of a big city like Rabat or Casablanca. That means, they do not take into account the climate, the sociology, the economic level, the technical skills and the history of these areas. 

In 2013 we started, in Marsad Drâa, to work on some of these issues: oasian urban planning / social dwellings / contemporary architecture on rammed earth / rammed earth pathologies / architectural heritage / oasian agriculture... This architectural competition was going to be an opportunity to develop (at least to start) some researches concerning these important matters.

With the information, and knowledge, I provided them on that place, and on the Drâa valley, they did this proposal.

I still think there are some ideas that need more research, but the starting point is quite interesting: to build social dwellings on rammed earth, from a contemporary point of view, with the aim of stopping the dunes, to reforest the palm grove and proposing a "new" urban planning based on oasian architecture heritage. 



During the World Environment Day in Zagora in 2014, organised by the association "Les Amis de l'Environnement de Zagora", I had a talk, "oasian urban planning, a tool against desertification", where I explained the project made by Inssaf and Najalae (that I supervised) as well as other proposals I had in other places of the Drâa valley with similar problems.



There is a village in the Ternata palm grove, Beni Zoli, that also has problems with desertification, in this case it is not caused by the dunes, but by new village extensions (of course there are other constraints like immigration and the lack of water). To avoid the disappearance of the oasis I proposed an urban and a reforestation planning for the the palm grove. The aim is to restored the previous forest space but introducing small districts inside, made of rammed earth, as the inhabitants of Targhlil (near Beni Zoli) already did after the floods that destroyed their ksar in the 80s. They built a new neighbourhood applying the experience they had after decades living in a ksar, in terms of urban planning and housing construction. These new districts are very dense but with wider public spaces because they don't need to be protected from enemy attacks, but from the sun, sand and wind. We really think this model should be studied, developed and applied in new urban planning in desert regions.



After the talk, the chief of desertification department of southern regions in Morocco, M. Rochdi Ouchna, came and asked me if we were going to build a model of the housing barrier, which meant, the construction of a curved wall on rammed earth with the negative shape of a barkhan dune. At the moment I realised this model could help us to better understand the behaviour of dunes against a barrier. So, this is the origin of the second project we showed on the documentary, the dune barrier. 


dune barrier

Tissardmine is a village of 20 families situated 7km north of Merzouga dunes, where there is an artist residence, Café Tissardmine, with whom we have developed several workshops and researches. This collaboration let us stablished a close relationship with all the inhabitants, in a place where they are sieged by dunes, that is the reason they were very interested on helping us with this research, because they could get some solutions to their sand problems.



The aim of this model was to study the behaviour of a small dune face to the barrier.

Will it be stopped?

Will it pass over the barrier?

Will it pass through the sides of the barrier?

Depending of the result we should be able to propose a solution in this village, and maybe in other places where dunes are making disappear palm groves and villages. 



During some years, we have been studying the movements of the dune but we couldn't do it in a scientific way because we had no climate data. We knew the movements were related to the wind, temperature and humidity, but with those data we couldn't compare the results. 



2. diffusion

When we started with the idea of Marsad Drâa as a platform for transdisciplinary researches, I had one thing very clair in my mind, I did not want to treat the information as most universities and researchers do, keeping then private (event if they have been paid with public money, until they publish them in some, "theoretically", prestigious magazines, publications that are not accesible to all. That is the main reason all the projects, researches, studies, présentations... we do in Marsad Drâa, we put all of them on our website and Facebook, just in order to share them with all the people interested on these topics.

In 2014 we still did not have a website and all the information we produced was uploaded on Facebook, like the Habitable Dune Barriers project and the talk in Zagora on climate change. They were two photo albums with the images and the explanations, everything needed to understand the proposals. 

It didn't matter how many followers we had or how many people were reactive on our posts, we just wanted to have it accesible.

In September 2014 we received this message on Facebook:

May I have your e-mail and telephone? Thank you very much / We will film a big documentary series on desertification (Episode 1 in Morocco for Arte TV) / Your links are exciting / May we speak on the phone? / Kind regards / Thierry Berrod, MonaLisa Production for Arte TV

Two days later, we had a two hour conversation on the phone. I realised he had been read all the information on desertification we had been published on Facebook and he congratulated me for the way we explained everything, which was very comforting, the confirm the "strategy" for the diffusion of our researches were right and also how powerful are the tools we can find on Internet, because they allow us to go much further than a publication of the conference proceedings of a congress or a scientific journal, overall we you are not working with the support of an academic or oficial institution.

But it was not just some information he wanted on decertification according to our searches, he also wanted us to participate in the documentary series and he needed us to be in Zagora two months later. Of course we agreed.

During two months we were also collaborating with him in the script of the Moroccan episode, choosing locations, people working on the same issue...  


3. filming

First of all I have to say that I'm a little bit upset by the fact that the architects that made the Habitable Dune Barries, Inssaf Bourhim and Najlae Chairich were not on the screen, also because people can think it was just me who made all the projects and researches, which is not true. Thierry Berrod told me from the beginning that only one person could speak to the camera, the others could be on the frame, but because it is a series aired on prime time for a general public, just one of us could explain the projects. In any case, the names of all researchers were going to appear at the end of the episode, in the credit titles. Inssaf and Najlae were not very happy with the idea of appearing but without talking. I proposed them to choose which one was going to explain the project they did, but also they had to come to Tissardmine and explain the construction of the barrier. At the end, they thought it was not worthy to make the effort of coming to Tissardmine and Zagora, but they are the authors of one of the projects and they appear on the credits in the documentary.  

In November 2014 we came to Tissardmine where we met the French television team and other researchers participating in the documentary. The idea was to show the impact of dunes approaching a village, Tissardmine, and how with the help of inhabitants we tried to study the behaviour of a small dune with the new barrier on rammed earth. We programmed the construction of the barrier so they could film it.

I have to thanks again the people of Tissardmine (Youssef, Ydiar, Kirch, Youssef...) and Café Tissardmine for their support in all our researches in that place.


Images from Planet Sand documentary series by Thierry Berrod for ARTE TV


After Tissardmine we went to Amezrou to film in the spot we made the Habitable Dune Barrier project and also to film in some locations where desertification was very present (with the help of a local association, Friends of Environment), in the Fezouata palm grove and in M'hamid El Ghizlane, the last oasis of the Drâa valley, where houses are been covered by sand dunes as if they were water waves. 

Images from Planet Sand documentary series by Thierry Berrod for ARTE TV

Besides the five episodes they also have a web documentary (click on the image):



It was a really pleasure to have collaborated with Thierry and his team, normal people doing amazing things, which let me learn a lot about desertification, about documentaries, about filming techniques... An unforgettable experience. Thanks Thierry!

4. epilogue

This is the story how Marsad Drâa participated on Planet Sand documentary series, we didn't ask for it, we just answered the petition Thierry Berrod did thanks to the information we share on Facebook, thanks to our belief that researches are possible without a lot of money and that you don't need universities to do and to disseminate them, however for that purpose you need to change your way of thinking and to optimise your resources.