Tunisians brace for harsher annual water shortage as temperatures climb

Centuries-old problem has been exacerbated by economic policy and climate change

The empty Sidi Salem dam in the northern Tunisian area of Testour, in the Beja province, in 2021. Hundreds of thousands of Tunisians lack access to clean water. AFP
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In the mountains of Tunisia's north-west, dozens of villages sit on the shores of the Sidi Barak reservoir, the second-largest in the country. Yet many of them have limited or no access to fresh, potable water.

"They can see the water from their homes, yet they have no access to it," said Yasser Souilmi, a natural resources management engineer at Houloul, which tracks public policy in Tunisia.

Hundreds of thousands of Tunisians lack clean water and, as temperatures rise over summer, their needs are again in the spotlight.

President Kais Saied this week called on the Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources to tackle what he called a "state of emergency".

"Tunisians today are complaining of thirst in many regions as a result of several considerations, including water policy," Mr Saied said.

Tunisia's water management is not centralised, with much of the country's water policy written and implemented under the Ben Ali administration (1987-2011), says Mr Souilmi, and has not been updated in the decades since.

Successive governments have failed to improve infrastructure, distribution or management of the resource. Many water associations are riddled with debt.

Export crops given water priority

Nearly 80 per cent of Tunisia's water is consumed by the agriculture sector, with so-called "thirsty" export crops — such as strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes, which are grown all year round and shipped to Europe — receiving priority for irrigation.

With rising global temperatures, such crops demand more water, even as less is available due to shorter rainy seasons.

Water-intensive heavy industry is another major consumer.

Most of that water comes from the country's north-western mountains, on the border with Algeria, and is pumped to the more populous costal regions, often leaving residents without access to the vital resource.

"It's a problem as old as Tunisia itself," said Mr Souilmi. "Even the Romans built aqueducts to move water from the mountains to the coast here."

But without updated water policy, many Tunisians in those regions will continue to rely on the bottled product to meet their daily needs.

Mr Saied condemned that inequality and the decline in availability that has made his country the number four consumer of bottled water per capita in the world.

"Who can afford bottled mineral water and why is it bottled instead of providing it directly to citizens?" the president said.

He stressed the need to "take immediate measures to restore water associations, then consider the possibility of rescheduling their debts".

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Updated: June 14, 2023, 6:54 AM