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Water Use in Tunisia

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Photo 1: Sprinkler-irrigated Farm, Tunisia. (Source: FAO/Sebastián Villar, Flickr)

Current water use per sector and analysis of possible deficit

Domestic: Tunisia has achieved a 100% rate of water supply in urban areas, whereas in rural areas this is about 94%.[1] In rural areas, the population is supplied either through house connections or by standpipes and wells. The rate of access to drinking water differs greatly between urban and rural areas, depending on water supply methods and conditions, per capita water supply (100-120 l/d/cap in urban areas, 40-80 l/d/cap in rural areas) and water quality where salinity and pollution are concerned.

Domestic water is supplied from surface water (395 MCM) and renewable aquifers (246 MCM).

Table 1: Rate of access to improved drinking water resources (% of total population).[3]

Water service rate201520162017
Global rate of supply (%)97.697.797.9
Rate of supply in urban areas (%)100100100
Rate of supply in rural areas (%)92.692.9
Network efficiency (%)70.771.570.3

The main challenges lie in Tunisia’s ability to reduce the demand pressure on water resources, improve the network performance, alleviate the supply-demand imbalance and avoid delays in implementing new water projects.[2]

Agriculture: In 2011, water withdrawal for irrigation was estimated at 2,644 MCM or 80% of total water withdrawals.[4][5] About 33% of the water used for irrigation comes from surface water and 66% from groundwater. Agriculture is the sector with by far the largest consumptive water use and withdrawal. Irrigation requirements are highly variable from year to year, depending on rainfall. Modern drip and sprinkler irrigation systems are the most commonly used, covering 76% of the total irrigated area.[6] Irrigated areas are composed of ‘private perimeters’ and collective or ‘public perimeters’: around 40% of the perimeters are private and irrigated from shallow or deep individual wells and shallow drillings, and 60% of the perimeters are equipped for collective irrigation from deep wells and great and hillside dams. The main public irrigation schemes are located in the Medjerda River basin in the north. The private schemes are mainly located in the traditional irrigated areas in the north-east (Cap Bon) and the central region (the Kairouanais, Sidi Bouzid).[7] The main irrigation constraints are related to the overuse of irrigation water, inefficient irrigation water distribution networks, degradation of groundwater quantity and quality due to overexploitation, restrictions on access to the resource and inadequate water valorization.[8]

Industry: In 2010, the industrial sector consumed about 121 MCM or 5% of the total water withdrawal. The need for water has increased every year to reach 203 MCM, a 2% average annual growth rate since 1996 when industrial water withdrawal was 104 MCM. Generally, small and mid-sized firms use good-quality water (drinking water from the public network) because it is satisfactory for all purposes, whereas some big industries use less expensive natural water resources. The share of the volume, between domestic and industrial sectors, distributed by the public network is expected to reach 48 MCM on the basis of an annual evolution of 1%. The rest will be taken directly by industry and is expected to reach 155 MCM with an annual evolution of 2.3% between 1996-2030. This demand will be met by 171 MCM of groundwater and 32 MCM of surface water.[9]

Tourism: In 2010, the tourism sector consumed 30 MCM, which represents only 1.1% of the total water withdrawal. About 33% is provided from surface water resources. Based on an average consumption of 345 litres per day and per installed bed and on a change in the distribution network efficiency from 74% in 1996 to 90% in 2030, the demand for water by the tourism sector will be in the order of 41 MCM/yr. This demand will be met by 21 MCM of surface water (51%), 14 MCM of groundwater (34%) and the remaining 6 MCM (15%) will be provided by unconventional resources (desalinated seawater).[10] [11]

Agricultural water use and irrigation development

Tunisia’s primary agricultural products are wheat, barley, citrus, fruits, dates, olive oil and vegetables. The major irrigated crops are vegetables and fruit trees, which contribute more than 40% of the total irrigated production. Agriculture is traditionally and predominantly rainfed, making it susceptible to high annual variability. The area equipped with irrigation schemes grew from 394,000 hectares (ha) in 2001 to 459,570 ha in 2011, an annual average increase of 1.4%. However, since the introduction of conservation measures across irrigated areas, consumption per hectare has begun to decline. The expected volume allocated to irrigated agriculture will tend to decrease by 1.3% by 2030, freeing up 5% of this volume for other uses.

Despite the limited size of irrigated areas, which only account for 8% of the country’s cultivated area, the irrigated sector is strategic in terms of its impact on food security and the socio-economic and political role it plays.

Economic role: The irrigated sector has diversified its production and is one of the pillars of the agricultural economy, which remains largely rainfed. The sector accounts for some 40% of all agricultural output, 95% of vegetable crops, 70% of tree crops and 30% of dairy output. From a socio-economic viewpoint, the sector accounts for 20% of agricultural exports (citrus, dates, early crops etc.). Apart from its role in the economy, irrigation helps farmers remain on their farms by providing a relatively regular income, which is on average three times higher than in rainfed agriculture. Production could definitely be stepped up in irrigated areas, but low water productivity means that resources are not exploited to their full potential. Nonetheless, the technical advances made in irrigated agriculture over the last 20 years are undeniable. Nearly one in four farmers is now involved in irrigation, a proportion that is even higher for small farms.

Social role: The irrigated sector employs approximately 20% of the labour force, a significant proportion. Irrigation has an impact on employment in all upstream and downstream sectors (supplies, agri-food businesses, services etc.) with a positive influence on rural development in regions with irrigated agricultural activity.

Political role: Although the contribution of agriculture to GDP is generally falling, irrigated agriculture still forms the core of small-scale agriculture, which has maintained its position despite the major technological and economic changes that have transformed the sector over the past few decades. It is unfortunate that the emergence of irrigated agricultural growth ‘poles’ – a development tool aimed at kick-starting the shift from subsistence to commercial agriculture – is still not fully integrated with small-scale farming. However, agricultural development groups are emerging as farmer representation and management structures in a sector that generally suffers from a lack of professional representation.[12]

[1] Louati M et al., 1998. Eau XXI. Stratégie du Secteur de l’Eau en Tunisie – à Long Terme 2030.
[2] ACWUA, n.d. General data on Tunisia.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Louati M et al., 1998. Eau XXI. Stratégie du Secteur de l’Eau en Tunisie – à Long Terme 2030.
[5] FAO, n.d. AQUASTAT Tunisia fact sheet.
[6] Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries, 2017. Rapport National du Secteur de l’Eau.
[7] Alterra Wageningen, 2012. Water and Agriculture in the Maghreb.
[8] Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries, 2017. Rapport National du Secteur de l’Eau.
[9] Louati M et al., 1998. Eau XXI. Stratégie du Secteur de l’Eau en Tunisie – à Long Terme 2030.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Chahed J et al., 2010. Water scarcity and food security: A global assessment of water potentiality in Tunisia. In Martinez-Cortina L, Garrido A and Lopez-Gunn E, eds. Re-thinking Water and Food. London, UK: Taylor & Francis Group.
[12] Hamdane A, 2019. Tunisia. In Molle F, Sanchis-Ibor C and Avella Reus L, eds. Irrigation in the Mediterranean: Technologies, Institutions and Policies. 15-49.