Failing crops, water rationing and a prison sentence: the reality of water scarcity in Tunisia

In response to the country’s worst drought on record, the Tunisian national water distribution company has declared that it will be cutting off water supply to citizens for seven hours a night during Ramadan with the possibility of extension even after the Holy month.

Being located in one of the most water-scarce regions in the world, Tunisia, the country that was once called Tounes Al Khadhra or Tunisia the Green, is facing a dry future.

On Friday, March 31st, the National Company of Water Exploitation and Distribution (SONEDE) declared that it will be cutting off the water supply to citizens for seven hours a night from 9 pm to 4 am. During the same week, the agriculture ministry also banned the use of potable water for washing cars, watering green areas and cleaning streets and public places, with violators facing fines and imprisonment for a period of between six days to six months. Even before that, the ministry introduced a quota system for potable water banning its use in agricultural irrigation until the end of September this year.

Regardless of the timing and urgency of these introduced measures, their application and effectiveness remain open to doubt.

Rawe Kefi, a young environmental activist and researcher in water policy, emphasized that although these measures now expose the scarcity of water and “could be a good solution as citizens should be aware that water will no longer be as available as it used to be”, they can also have the opposite effect as these pressures incite people to hoard water in panic that may not even be used later and “the consumption of water has actually increased as people now store up water all at the same time.”

Why now?

Tunisia has found itself in a state of chronic water insecurity after registering one of the lowest rain seasons in modern history. This year, the country has recorded a drop in its reservoirs of about 30% of the maximum. For context, in normal conditions dams should be receiving enough rain to reach 60% capacity at this time of the year. For a country that relies on agriculture as one of the driving sectors of its economy contributing to about 10% of its GDP, this is considered a state of emergency and a catastrophic year for harvest as stated by Anis Kharbeche the spokesman for the farming and fishing union UTAP.

Fears of failing crops and food insecurity are further mounting. Farming unions have warned that whereas the country used to import roughly two thirds of its cereal needs, now with about 800 000 hectares of cereal crops failing to fully sprout due to the lack of rain, it is estimated that yields will fall by half. As a result of this the government will have to import up to 80% of its cereal to meet domestic demand. This will, in part, further compound Tunisia’s financial strain in the face of skyrocketing international wheat prices because of the war in Ukraine.

Amplifying social injustice

Although this critical point constitutes a nationwide concern, the ramifications are not being felt uniformly across different regions and social classes.

Based on a “map of thirst” produced by Watch Water, an independent association of experts that monitors water policies in the country, water alerts are spread out all across the country. However, out of a total 132 of complaints received by the observatory during the month of February, the majority of 110 alerts were related to unannounced water cuts, with the Governorate (state) of Ben Arous being in the lead with 24 alerts in just one month.

When it comes to the aforementioned nighttime water cuts, these operations are not enforced equally across the country. In several cities like Bardo, home to the legislative branch, there has been no change to the water supply. But in other smaller and less influential areas, financial might and social stratification start to be conspicuous.

While on vacation in Sakiet Sidi Youssef, a town located in the West of the country near the Algerian borders, Sameh, 27 observed that people have been complaining that water cuts don’t affect everyone equally. The Mayor’s residence still receives water despite the regulations imposed and some houses still have running water because they paid a sum of money to the distribution worker, while water has been cut off to their neighbors who didn’t give bribes. A claim has been filed, but at the time of writing this article, no action has been taken yet.

Sameh Toumine, a resident of Gammarth, a town known for its expensive and luxurious hotels located a few kilometers north of the capital, Tunis, explained that her town is divided into 3 parts: Gammarth Forêt, Gammarth Supérieur, and Gammarth Village where she lives. She notes that “water is not being cut off in Gammarth Supérieur where many businessmen and influential people live. The area where I live is affected by the cuts, but since my house is located really close to hotels and the houses of rich people, we share the same water channels and that’s why water is not being cut off to my house.”

A long-standing but overlooked concern

Like the rest of the Maghreb region, Tunisia’s vulnerabilities to climate change have always manifested through rising temperatures, decreasing precipitation and longer heatwaves, causing more potent wildfires and water deprivation. 2022-23 was an exceptional period in all of these aspects.

However, Tunisia is now in its fourth consecutive year of drought, and climate change is not a newfound phenomenon.

Based on international indicators to measure levels of water stress, less than 1000 cubic meter per inhabitant per year is the threshold under which a region is considered to be facing chronic water stress and the prospect of development thus recedes. Tunisia however, has registered less than 500m3 since the 1990s and yet no comprehensive strategies have been put in place to address the issue.

Rawe also voiced that these measures are taking too much time to materialize and “it’s too late… We  started to notify the Tunisian government ten years ago about the country’s vulnerability when it comes to water but with no reply, and this is mainly a matter of political and economic choices.”

Tunisia, within the structural adjustment reforms it undertook during the 1970s and 80s to liberalize its economy, has relied ever since on a water-intensive export-led agriculture whereby the country grows heavily irrigated fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries etc. for them to be then exported to the EU. This virtual water, or water used in agriculture and not being directly consumed by citizens, is a huge part of the problem here since the agricultural sector uses up to 80% of all potable water in a country being deeply afflicted with water poverty. As pointed out by Rawe, “We are actually exporting our water while we are in a situation of hydro-stress.”

The way ahead

Rawe affirms that the environment is a cross-cutting factor that affects all aspects of the economy and society that is why the government is required to develop a well-rounded strategy to reconfigure environmental and water concerns at the center of its policies.

When it comes to the use of desalination facilities, Rawe explains that although they are unavoidable adaptation measures that we will definitely need to deploy in the long term, at present, Tunisia is still unprepared financially and infrastructure wise. For now, these plants are still energy dependent, too expensive to maintain and will inevitably inflate the price of water imposed on citizens already grappling with a high cost of living,

What is more practical, she makes clear, is to start rethinking our economic policies and take into account virtual water while exporting as Tunisia needs to shift away from its current short-sighted and profit-driven agricultural practices that prioritize the biggest agricultural exporters and start encouraging the use of indigenous and less water demanding crops while taking into account the needs and vulnerabilities of small farmers the ones actually providing for our domestic markets but being impacted the most by the water crisis.

She also acknowledges that the government should fix its decades’ old, worn and leaking infrastructure that contributes to almost a third of water being wasted and enforce the pre-established laws to control and monitor illicit wells that have mushroomed to reach more than 21 thousand, further exhausting the country’s underground water resources.

Tesnim Grira