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Morocco imagines its capital free of slums

Program seeks to eradicate urban shanties

Sidi Moumen, pictured here, is one of dozens of slums around Casablanca where a third of Morocco's worst urban housing lies. Sidi Moumen, pictured here, is one of dozens of slums around Casablanca where a third of Morocco's worst urban housing lies. (Abdeljalil Bounhar/Associated Press)
By Alfred de Montesquiou
Associated Press / April 19, 2009
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CASABLANCA, Morocco - This seaside city is known as a rich stockpile of art deco architecture, the hub of Morocco's economic growth and the setting of an all-time classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

But Casablanca is also the capital of a bleaker aspect of modern Morocco - sprawling slums, where huge families are packed into shanties with tin roofs rusted by the ocean winds, and goats and donkeys munch stray garbage.

"It's as if we're eating straight from the gutter," said Mina Abujaman, 48, describing the squalor.

"We spend half our time cleaning up," said the mother of seven and grandmother of two, pointing at the children playing in the mud while women carry water back from the communal fountain - all amid whiffs of sewage.

Yet the slum of Sidi Moumen, one of dozens around Casablanca where a third of the country's worst urban housing lies, is expected to disappear soon. In fact, Abujaman's quarter of breeze-block houses and twisting alleys is one of the last still standing in the area, and dozens more shanties are being pulled down each month.

From the neighborhood's empty lots, a gray line of new housing projects is visible in the distance, nibbling ever farther into the countryside.

All this is part of Morocco's "Towns Without Slums" program, one of the most ambitious worldwide to eradicate urban shanties.

Some 1.5 million Moroccans were living in such homes until recently, hidden behind concrete walls as the North African kingdom displayed its brighter sides to tourists and businessmen.

Yet the slum dwellers weren't ignored by all.

Islamist parties recruited them in droves, as did the terror groups that used the angriest among the tenants as suicide bombers in a killing spree that left 45 people dead in Casablanca in 2003. Most of them lived not far from Abujaman's house, in a block in Sidi Moumen that has since been leveled.

In 2004, King Mohammed VI told his government to remove all the country's slums within eight years. Five years later, officials say they are nearly half done.

"Slums are a problem all over the developing world," said Fatna Chihab, the head of social housing at the Ministry for Habitat and Urban Planning. "Morocco's originality is that his majesty decided to tackle the issue head-on."

About 43 percent of the nearly 300,000 families tallied as living in urban shanties have been rehoused, said Chihab, who heads the relocation program.

The $3 billion project is financed nearly half by the Moroccan state, which is far more cash-strapped than other Arab countries with large oil reserves. Private contractors and contributions from residents of the new projects fund the rest.

It is viewed as one of the king's key policies, part of his pledge to bring a measure of social equality to a fast-changing country where money has flowed into business and tourism, while the poor living in near-medieval conditions in city slums and downtrodden villages have gotten little.

Authorities also promise to bring electricity, infrastructure, and running water to villages to keep rural populations from migrating to cities and creating new slums. Remote villages, and even some of the medinas, or historic town centers, can offer worse living conditions than the slum shanties, Chihab said.

"But the slums are just such a crying image of misery" that the government has made them a priority, she said. She noted, too, that the government was aware that the informal economy and absence of social services in the slums could create a breeding ground for criminals and terrorist groups.

Morocco's slum clearance is part of the broader Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 by the United Nations, which seeks to "achieve significant improvement" in the lives of 100 million slum dwellers worldwide by 2020. The world had more than 1 billion slum dwellers in 2005, the UN says.