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Author: Ali Noureddine
Tunisia’s water crisis reached a critical juncture in March 2023 as the authorities implemented special rationing programs that resulted in cutting off water to significant portions of the country during specific hours of the day. This action marks the most dangerous phase of the crisis.
Water cuts have been implemented in various parts of Tunisia, including the capital Tunis, as well as the cities of Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia, and Sfax. These strict measures were put in place to reduce water consumption in response to a drought crisis, dwindling precipitation and declining dam-filling rates.
This situation has made Tunisia a prime example of the adverse effects of climate change on vulnerable populations.
Three years of drought
Since 2017, Tunisia has experienced a decline in rainfall, which has resulted in a period of continuous drought since 2020. As a result, by 2023, the authorities were unable to meet the daily consumption needs of citizens and the irrigation requirements of agricultural areas. This dire situation follows a three-year drought.
In 2023, statistics indicate that the total average filling rate of dams by the end of the winter season did not exceed 25 per cent.
In some dams, the percentage dropped to less than 10 per cent. This represents a significant decline compared to 2019, where the average dam filling rate reached 80 per cent, prior to the onset of the three-year drought. The amount of water stored in dams in 2023 is estimated to be around 743.1 million cubic meters, a decrease from 1,130 million cubic meters in the same period last year.
These figures indicate a deterioration in drought indicators in 2023 compared to the previous year, which was already a challenging year in terms of water scarcity.
The northern region of Tunisia relies on surface storage mediums such as dams and artificial lakes to fulfil 80 per cent of its water needs. However, due to the decline in rainfall rates caused by climate change, dam filling rates have decreased, resulting in a severe water scarcity crisis.
Groundwater sources, which could serve as an alternative to surface storage media, are not a viable option due to high levels of pollution caused by industrial waste and poor sanitation management, as well as depletion from excessive historical use. With no viable alternative, Tunisia’s vulnerability to the volatility of rainfall and the decrease in the volume of water stored in dams is increasing.
Due to these developments, official figures show that the per capita share of water in Tunisia has declined to a mere 400 cubic meters per year in 2023, well below the United Nations’ water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per year.
It is worth noting that this water poverty is the most severe in the history of Tunisia, as dam filling rates have never declined for several years in a row, as is currently the case. Additionally, the Tunisian state has never before implemented a water rationing system, as it did in 2023.
To gauge the severity of the ongoing drought, consider that between September 2022 and March 2023, the country received only about 110 million cubic meters of rain, a stark contrast to the annual average of over 520 million cubic meters prior to the current drought.
As a consequence of the climate change crisis, the country has lost roughly 79 per cent of its rainwater resources that used to sustain the water networks over the past three years. If the crisis persists into the coming year, it is anticipated that water scarcity will force the shutdown of numerous Tunisian dams due to their complete depletion, further exacerbating the crisis.
Impact on rural communities
The impact of climate change and water scarcity in Tunisia will be felt most acutely by vulnerable groups, particularly those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture in rural areas.
This sector accounts for around 80 per cent of the country’s water usage for irrigation, but only contributes about 15 per cent to Tunisia’s GDP. Additionally, the agricultural sector employs approximately 14 per cent of the country’s workforce.
Amid the ongoing drought crisis in Tunisia, the Ministry of Agriculture implemented a quota system in late March 2023 to distribute water to farmers, landowners and cultivated areas. This entails putting a cap on the amount of water that each beneficiary can use.
The government has set particular hours for water cutoffs in each agricultural sector, as it has in residential areas. Meanwhile, the National Water Exploitation and Distribution Company has banned the use of drinking water for green space irrigation and other agricultural activities.
The Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fisheries reports that due to the water cutoffs, thousands of hectares of crops have been affected by severe drought, making it impossible for farmers to meet their basic water needs for irrigation. This situation will require new and significant investments in the future to reclaim and revitalize the affected lands, which will increase the cost of the crisis for farmers in the long run.
In addition, the union predicts that the country’s grain production this year will drop to levels that may not even be sufficient to secure next year’s seeds. This shortage of salable crops will lead to financial losses for farmers, who may be forced to exit the market permanently due to a lack of capital to invest in their lands in the future.
Tunisian farmers are facing multiple challenges due to the water crisis and drought. The lack of rain has made it necessary for them to increase irrigation to fruit tree farms, like olives and almonds, compared to previous years.
However, the scarce supply of water network imports may leave farmers unable to secure the necessary irrigation for these trees, leading to damage to the perennial trees that have been inherited for generations.
As a result of the drought and the decline in crop volume, the prices of fodder and herbs have skyrocketed.
Tunisian farmers have been forced to sell or slaughter thousands of cows, causing a significant decline in milk production in the country. This is especially troubling since Tunisia mainly suffers from a scarcity of milk imports, which have disappeared from the shelves of most stores due to insufficient local production and high importing costs.
The consequences of these developments will be felt strongly in rural communities, which rely on agriculture to support their families. Tunisia already faces high unemployment rates, which sit at around 16 per cent, according to the International Labor Organization. The financial crisis that the Tunisian state is currently experiencing makes it difficult to provide social safety nets for the unemployed.
Moreover, farmers are subject to a high percentage of informal labor, which leaves them exposed to the risks of rapid dismissal without any compensation or health guarantees in the medium-term.
Impact on poor families
The water crisis will disproportionately impact impoverished communities, even in non-agricultural societies.
For instance, the recent ban on washing cars by Tunisian authorities has resulted in the collapse of an entire sector that employs 10,000 workers, most of whom are daily laborers and low-income individuals.
Similarly, cleaning workers have also been affected as the authorities prohibit the use of water for cleaning public spaces and common areas in residential buildings.
The poorest families will face the greatest consequences of the crisis as they lack the financial means to store water in their homes or buildings during periods of rationing. Additionally, they are unable to afford the means to purify and treat the water from the official network, which has increased in salinity due to drought, thereby exposing them to severe health risks.
Moreover, low-income households cannot afford to buy bottled mineral water, which is now in high demand among the middle and wealthy classes. Consequently, impoverished families may be forced to resort to unclean sources of drinking water, further exacerbating their plight.
Jurisprudential and religious problems
Regarding religious rituals, the water crisis may not significantly affect the duty of ablution required before performing the five daily prayers, as religious teachings provide the option of performing dry ablution with sand when water is not available.
However, the lack of water will make it difficult to fulfil the condition of purity, which requires the removal of material impurities from the body using water.
The majority of Sunni jurists do not permit the removal of impurity from clothes and the body except with pure and clean water, which will force Tunisian jurists to seek alternative legal solutions.
The state of impurity is typically achieved when the body comes into contact with substances such as blood, certain animals like dogs and pigs, or after using the bathroom. Without purification with water, prayer cannot be performed.
During the next phase, the Tunisian authorities must implement solutions to address the current water scarcity, including reducing water waste through improved distribution and storage networks. The United Nations has previously urged the Tunisian government to allocate long-term projects aimed at improving water network management and increasing efficiency.
Furthermore, Tunisian authorities must extend renewable energy desalination projects, which they began implementing in 2022, in order to locate alternate water sources stored in dams. The development of efficient irrigation technologies for crops, which now absorb the majority of available water resources, will also be critical in decreasing waste and enhancing efficiency.