Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Ouarzazate to Marrakesh Tunnel - A Tunnel Too Far?

The notion of a road tunnel linking Marrakech to Ouarzazate is a pipe dream that refuses to go away. There is no doubt a better connection from Marrakech could boost tourism and the film industry in Ouarzazate. A tunnel would also be free from the annual problems of snow and ice. But, there is also no doubt that Morocco would need a miracle budget in order to afford it

The concept of the tunnel is not new. One of the early attempts by the French in the 1940s was at the southern end of the Zate valley (under the Tizi n'Tainant) but the protectorate was coming to an end, so the tunnel was abandoned after only one km or so. Another early attempt in the 1950s was driven by the needs of a mining consortium to construct a telepherique (cable car) in the Zate Valley.

The Zate valley seems the logical route but the plans, such as they are, involve building a tunnel at the end of the Ourika valley, starting from Setti Fatma. As the Ourika valley is quite narrow any expressway would have a massive impact on the scenic beauty.

Early discussion was for a railway tunnel. The idea was to transport manganese for the mining industry. One exploration had even begun but stopped after few hundred meters. A study was developed during the era of independence in 1974,  and updated with a technical and financial investigation, initiated by the Department of Ouarzazate in 1996. Again, nothing eventuated.

It was not until 10 years later, in 2006, that the Ouarzazate provincial council decided to revive the project. But by 2012 the project was shelved for lack of funds. That was the same year that a bus crash on the Tichka pass resulted in forty-two deaths and resurrection of the tunnel debate. Again this went nowhere due to lack of resources. One estimate puts the probable cost of 10 k of tunnel at 1 billion per kilometre.

If it ever goes ahead there are two alternatives, a twin bore tunnel, or a single bore tunnel carrying two-way traffic. Hardly a good recommendation given Morocco's accident rate.

However, the other option is to improve the famous road across the Tichka pass. Not only is it one of the world's great road trips, rising to almost 2,300 metres above sea level, it is the highest pass in Morocco.

The Ministry of Infrastructure, Transport and Logistics has adopted a budget of about 1 billion dirhams for the rehabilitation of Highway 9 which includes 186 km connecting Ouarzazate and Marrakech.

The redevelopment work began last summer over a 13 km  section with an investment of 200 million dirhams.

The View From Fez travelled the pass last week and reports that a significant amount of roadwork is underway. In some places this is more than doubling the road width and making overtaking possible. It is a small step in the right direction.

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