Tunisia's water crisis: A ticking time bomb

ByHisham Allam

Tunisia's water crisis: A ticking time bomb

Tunisia, an African country that is home to 12.5 million people, has been suffering from significant water scarcity for the past five years as a result of drought. Since April 2023, the state water distribution company, Sonede, has been cutting off the main water supply every night. Meanwhile, the country’s administration has extended the quota system that has been in place for the provision of drinking water and prohibited its use in agriculture and green space irrigation. The cause for this is the country’s continued severe drought which has resulted in a delay in autumn rains and a drop in dam levels.

Ongoing droughts and higher temperatures

“The serious water scarcity is due to the frequency of drought periods and a decrease in the rainfall rate by more than 55% compared to the annual average,” according to Dr. Raoudha Gafrej, an international expert in integrated management of water resources and climate change adaptation.

He said that due to evaporation and the erosion of the storage basins, the water levels behind the dams has also decreased to roughly 23%, a rate that must not drop any lower to ensure the integrity of the dam structures.

Raoudha explained that the last five drought seasons followed three dry years and an average year, meaning that Tunisia has experienced eight dry years in the last decade. Together with this, the lack of rainfall has caused a significant rise in temperature which increases the need for water for irrigation and drinking while also accelerating the rate of evaporation.

As precipitation levels are predicted to further reduce, it is expected that by 2050 Tunisia will see a substantial rise in annual maximum temperatures of up to 3.8 degrees Celsius.

Water supply cut-offs

Raoudha also said that throughout Tunisia, the daily water cut-off rates exceed 10 hours and, in certain places, the cut-offs occur for days in a row. Residents have to drink mineral water since the water is too contaminated which places a financial strain on those who are less well-off.

The situation is much more difficult in rural areas that receive water supplies from the General Directorate of Rural Engineering through the water complexes because of the depletion of groundwater and the rise in the costs of pumping water which has left all the complexes in debt to the National Electricity and Gas Company. According to Raoudha, the scarcity of surface water resources has caused a significant rise in groundwater use and depletion, as well as the emergence of an ad hoc market for the sale of water in plain sight of the government.

Limited water resources

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines absolute water scarcity as less than 500 cubic meters per year per capita. Tunisia’s total renewable water resources are 4615 million m3 per year which translates to 400 cubic meters per capita. As this is less than the absolute water scarcity threshold, Tunisia is experiencing water scarcity.

According to Raoudha, there are more than 44,000 deep water wells in Tunisia, 30,000 of which are unlicensed, and the government is powerless to shut these down under existing regulations. Several wells have become depleted and there has been a deterioration in water salinity as a result of the increased use of groundwater.

Mabrouka Khedir, founder of the Cosmos environmental media platform, stated that the agricultural sector in Tunisia consumes a large percentage of the country’s water, putting additional pressure on resources. While 77% of Tunisia’s water resources are allocated to agriculture, only 8% of its arable land is irrigated meaning that 92% of agricultural land in Tunisia still depends on rainfall.

Tunisia relies heavily on the rainy season to meet its water needs. However, the country suffers from fluctuations in rainfall patterns, leading to long periods of drought and insufficient rainfall in some areas.

Tunisia also faces the problem of water pollution in its seas, rivers, and groundwater which negatively affects water quality and makes it unsuitable for human consumption.

What of solutions?

The current crisis has two causes, one of which is climate change. However, the second cause is poor governance over the last 30 years. International institutions have warned of an impending water crisis in Tunisia but none of the successive governments have adequately addressed this.

“The absence of government vision now puts us in front of certain death, either by thirst or by fighting for a drink of water,” Mabrouka said.

Dr. Raoudha Gafrej, who believes that Tunisia’s government should have declared a water emergency long ago, pointed out that one of the main solutions to the water crisis would be to support the disaster fund with the necessary money to compensate those farmers who the state cannot provide water to and to support olive and grain farmers. She also highlighted the need to establish stations for desalinating seawater and treating and reusing wastewater, as well as repairing all the faults and renewing the channels so that the rate of water loss decreases. This currently exceeds 50% in irrigation networks and 30% in drinking water networks.

In an effort to address the water crisis, the Tunisian government has partnered with the World Bank to secure a €113.6 million loan for the Tunisia Sanitation Public-Private Partnership (PPP) support project. This project aims to improve the quality of wastewater management services in specific regions of the country by strengthening the capacity of ONAS, the national sanitation public company, to effectively manage PPP contracts in relation to the provision of sanitation services. The project is expected to provide improved water supply and sanitation services for an estimated two million direct beneficiaries, with a particular focus on women and girls. This investment represents a positive step towards addressing Tunisia’s water crisis and demonstrates the government’s commitment to improving the country’s water management infrastructure.