Water Stories from the Maghreb and the Middle East

Water in Tunisia: Poverty Line and Impoverishment Plans

It is a commonplace to say that a water shortage threatens Tunisia. What is more at stake is the evolution of its uses and the distribution of the resource. However, intensive agriculture for export is leading water consumption, while the basic rate for Tunisians is rising sharply.

Watering of cereal field by pressure irrigation system in El-Brahimi, governorate of Jendouba

“Thirst Threatens Tunisia,” “Tunisia Experiences Water Poverty,” “Water Scarcity is Tunisia’s Imminent Danger” and “Scarcity of Water Resources Threatens Country’s Future.” These are some headlines/keywords that are resonant in official speeches and media coverage in connection with the water issue.

But what does “water poverty” really mean? And if there is poverty, is it natural and traditional? Or is it caused by human behaviors and policies? Does Tunisia its appraise water resources? In an attempt to answer these questions, we decided to examine statistics and data demonstrated in many reports and studies issued by official, research and association bodies. Additionally, we asked questions to experts, researchers and civil activities concerned with water issues.

Prior to analyzing and anatomizing water poverty, it will be essential to address the water resources in Tunisia. Here, we will rely on 2019’s figures and statistics.1

In 2019, the average annual rainfall in Tunisia was 283 mm, with significant differences amongst different regions. Sometimes, the south-west regions record an annual average of more than 1000 mm, while the southern regions bordering the desert record an average of less than 100 mm annually.

The Tunisian water resources are estimated at 5 billion CBM approximately: surface water of 2575 million CBM and underground water of 2197 million CBM. Northern regions provide 80% of the surface water. As for the underground water, it is distributed over low-deep underground layers that account for 746 million CBM, which mostly exist in the north (49%) and in the center (33%). The utilization percentage exceeds 117% by more than 111 thousand shallow wells. Meanwhile, the deep underground water exceeds 1400 million CBM, of which nearly 50% is non-renewable, and is mainly in the south (60%). It is extracted through more than 30 thousand artesian wells and is utilized by nearly 120%.

There are more than 1200 units of hydraulic infrastructure distributed as follows: 37 dams, 258 mountain dams, 913 mountain lakes, 19 water treatment plants, 19 underground water desalination plants and one seawater desalination plant. The length of the water distribution grid extends beyond 55 thousand km.

An “ideological” leitmotiv

Extracted water is consumed by agriculture (80%), industry (5%), tourism (2%) and drinking and domestic use (the remaining 13%).

The Ministry of Agriculture is the main player in managing water in Tunisia, primarily through the Société d’exploitation du canal et des adductions des eaux du nord (SECADE NORD), the Société nationale d’exploitation et de distribution des eaux (SONEDE), the Office national de l’assainissement (ONAS), and the Direction du génie rural et Groupe développement agricole”.

Addressing “water poverty,” “rarity” and “scarcity” in Tunisia is usually coupled with “terrible” figures: Tunisia’s per capita share of water does not exceed 450 CBM. As a reminder, the poverty index is less than 500 CBM and rarity is less than 1000 CBM. Such figures and terminologies are widely promoted without any verification or substantiation. In order to understand the real situation of water in Tunisia, we decided to ask experts and activists in the water issue about the most correct characterization—rarity, scarcity, poverty...?

“None of these characterizations,” replies Habib Al-Ayeb, geography professor and researcher, documentary director and a co-founder of the Tunisia Observatory of Food and Environment Sovereignty. He explains, “What are we really talking about? I do not know your consumption volume, social conditions, what class you belong to or your lifestyle, but I have decided that you need such quantity but you do not have it. Such statements are grounded on things taken for granted, as we suppose that all people consume the same quantity of water.” Habib Al-Ayeb considers that repeated talk about water poverty in Tunisia is an introduction to water commodification: The underlying intention is to create a water market. However, there is no market without demand. Demand and commodity should be created. To increase the commodity price, scarcity should be introduced. This is a purely ideological, integrated logic.

Therefore, Tunisia does not experience water poverty, not even in connection with the arid or semi-arid climate that prevails the country. He replied, “Of course, climate plays a role, but once again we can’t separate the phenomena. Climatic changes do not only mean water scarcity, but sometimes abundance. Water abundance may threaten Tunisia due to repeated floods during the past years.”

We asked Nageh Buqara, a water expert engineer, the same questions and he replied, “We have enough water. However, we also have community movements for claiming water, mostly for domestic use. They represent nearly 10% of our total water resources. Therefore, it is a governance crisis rather than a resources crisis. I believe that the best description is that we suffer from water stress, rather than water scarcity.”

Alaa Al-Marouqi’s response, the general coordinator of the Tunisian Water Observatory warns of political exploitation of the scarcity statement: “Such figures are a pretext to conceal the real problems of water in Tunisia. When water cuts are repeated in several regions, officials appear to repeat the same statement on water poverty without explaining such figures. Common terms are used and imposed by international organizations, which should be dealt with carefully.”

Of course, all of this does not deny that water resources in Tunisia are limited compared to water-rich countries, but the inhabitants of this area have always adapted to this limitation. Phrases like “Green Tunisia” and “Treasure of Rome” did not come out of nowhere. The problem is never related to what is available, but how to manage it and the priorities of usage.

“We export water!”

Nearly 80% of Tunisian water resources are used for irrigation and agricultural exploitation. Small family farms targeting local consumption were the prevalent feature of Tunisian agriculture until the 1960s. With the establishment of the cooperative societies “Solidarity” in 1964, agriculture changed, as the country’s pursuit was achieving “food security.” The intensification of land utilization and acceleration of agricultural, botanical and animal production become a concern for officials at the time. Naturally, water consumption increased. In the early 1970s, the socio-economic trends changed towards liberal openness, which affected agriculture. The country encouraged exportable agricultural production, particularly olive oil, citrus, dates and some other fruits, in addition to vegetables and fruits at the expense of grains, legumes and many basic products. As a result of such options, water consumption will witness a significant leap and areas of cultivated land will double. Tunisia will invest huge technical, financial and human capabilities in encouraging the creation of mass-productive cultivated areas. Despite repeated statements on water poverty, Tunisia further adheres to this policy. By June 2018, it signed a USD 140 million-loan agreement with the World Bank to expand cultivated areas in six Tunisian states.

Al-Ayeb powerfully criticizes these policies, saying: “There are half a million acres of cultivated lands in the south. What is planted there? Products for exporting. So, we export water, and no one gives us figures on the total percentage of water used for agriculture. What is the percentage of water used for basic agricultural production? I cannot give you an accurate number, but as an estimate, only 30% of water. The remaining goes to exportation agriculture, in addition to abundant agricultural products exceeding the demand, such as meat or crops beyond season. What if we changed the equation? We stop exporting water and abandon unnecessary production. Instead, we concentrate on basic food, so that we save nearly 50% of water resources and guarantee food sovereignty.”

Once the water issue is discussed in rural areas, the problem of water societies/associations appears, which is deemed by many as the main cause of wasting water. They are water facilities established by the Ministry of Agriculture in areas where SONEDE has no access. In order to better understand the position of these societies, we asked Alaa Al-Marzouqi, who replied, “When these societies were established, they had a social character in rural, remote barren areas. The Ministry of Agriculture interfered, extended networks, established societies and delivered the keys to concerned inhabitants. Prior to the 2011 Revolution, these societies were electoral bases for the ruling party and most supervisors were pro-regime. This situation opened the door wide to corruption. Supervisors were collecting invoices from citizens but did not deliver them to the Société tunisienne de l’électricité et du gaz (STEG), which could not interfere at such time. In the aftermath of the revolution, STEG decided to cut off the power supply to societies that did not pay their invoices, while officials left them in debt and escaped accountability. There is also an issue of management. The State spends billions on building roads but delivers them to people that do not have the minimum qualifications in management, maintenance and financial management. These water societies do not waste voluminous quantities of water resources. On the contrary, their water is mainly used for drinking and cleaning, while a small portion goes to family farming. Will people waste this water in barren areas?”

These sectors do not consume much of the water allocations compared to agriculture. Industry and tourism shares do not exceed 5% and 2%, respectively. There are aspects of the uses that harm water resources, either as waste, pollution or even exhaustion in some regions.

Consumptive and polluting industries

Since the 1970s, Tunisia has decided to encourage “popular tourism,” mainly based on affordable hotels, sea and sun, centered on eastern centerline and north coasts. During the hot summer months, when many Tunisian regions experience interruptions, or even an outage, of water supplies, hotels are full of tourists enjoying swimming pools, spas and laundry services for a trivial amount of foreign currency. Bearing in mind, most hotels are situated in water-exhausted regions due to the demographic density and/or semi-arid climate. Most Tunisian regions, with the exception of the northwest (humid climate) and part of the northeast (semi-humid), are classified as arid and semi-arid regions. The most hotel-accommodating region is the coastal region, situated on the eastern side of the region, compared to the inland western region. Therefore, it is the most preferred destination of millions of Tunisians for working, studying and treatment. It has industrial areas (textiles and food industries). Its water resources are significantly exhausted demographically, industrially and touristically.

For the industry, the problem is twofold. In addition to the volume of consumption, there are also polluting practices. We only give two examples. The first is related to the textile industry, representing a vital sector in Tunisia. Textile production passes through a number of stages, including washing and tanning. These two activities exhaust huge quantities of water and cause a larger scale of different forms of pollution. “The stages of the washing process require 12 basins of water, including flushing equipment. Moreover, many chemicals are used for washing, such as chlorine, water and oxygen,” as indicated in Forum tunisien pour les droits économiques et sociaux report. As per the stated source, production requires 25 liters of water for a t-shirt and 55 liters for trousers (…). In addition, the consumption of companies engaged in processing and tanning clothes”. Many companies in the textile sector are exhausting underground water and do not treat used water, which is disposed of directly in nature.

The phosphate industry is the second example. We will not address all elements of the environmental-health crime committed against inhabitants of the Gafsa—Gabes—Sfax triangle and concentrate on the water problem alone. As an example, the Chemical Industries Complex of Gabes consumes more than 30 x CBM of water and disposes of 42 x CBM of gypsum sludge into the sea and underground water daily. Meanwhile, the Mine Basin of Sfax experiences thirst, as phosphate washers of the Gafsa Phosphate Company consume huge quantities of allocated water. Alongside underground water, it consumes a share of drinking water and drains huge quantities of used water next to underground water wells, resulting in pollution and depriving thirsty people of water.

Obsolete infrastructure

A share of wasted water in Tunisia results from the situation of water infrastructure and grids. For example, dams in Tunisia lose nearly 20% of storage capacity due to sediments and lack of maintenance. As per the figures provided by Dr. Hamza Al-Feel, water desalination researcher and chairman of the laboratory at the Water Researches and Technologies Centre, based on reports by SONEDE and the Ministry of Agriculture, the percentage of wasted water is nearly 30% for SONEDE grids and more than 40% in agricultural water channels. The researcher enumerates the reasons for wasting water: “Obsolescence of water distribution grids and lack of maintenance, as the SONEDE grid extends for more than 55,000 kilometres, of which 40% is more than 29 years old and 17% is more than 49 years old; the delayed intervention for repairing broken sectors of the grid (nearly 20k in 2019); water leakages of 201,519 during 2019 in the SONEDE grid; and lack of smart grids”. Nageh Buqara asserts such estimation, considering that waste mainly occurs in facilities, rather than consumption, namely “at the level of water systems, particularly in water production and transmission grids, so it is upstream not downstream”. Such decline exacerbates annually with obsolescence of facilities, equipment and supplies, coupled with deductions in budgets of maintenance, refurbishment and expansion. SONEDE suffers from financial strains and can only rely on its own resources, since it is abandoned by the State, which subsidizes many commodities and products and promotes “investment” in many aspects by tax privileges.

Talk about the rich, tax the poor

“During the third summer I spent in Tunisia, there was an extraordinary number of popular uprisings across the country (…) The drive for these social movements was water shortage,” as reported by the World Bank director in Tunisia, Tony Verheijen, in March 2019 on World Bank Blogs website. He continues, in great depth: “The main reason for this is that the richest fifty people (…) use drinking water to wash cars and water gardens (…) Secondly, the huge increase in tourists is an additional pressure on water demand. Seemingly, hotels are not interested in reducing their water consumption (not even the traditional notes encouraging reusing towels)”. Yes, quite simply, it is related to cars and towels. Mr. Verheijen does not leave us in a maze and reveals the reasons for wasting: “Water is one of most precious and rare natural resources in Tunisia, however it is sold for a pittance (…) Water is the only commodity that is very cheap, which doesn’t encourage people to be economical in their consumption.” The magical formula is well known: “To modify tariff to cost recovery levels”. Of course, such trend “would have a minimal impact on the poor,” assures the author, depending on figures and statistics reported in a study published by World Bank.

Mr. Verheijen and his organization are not the only ones worried about water resources of Tunisia. In December 2018, the German Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) signed with the Tunisian Government a Euro 100 million-loan agreement for financing the “Program of Supporting Water Sector Reforms—Second Phase”. The agreement covered implementation of 13 “Reforms,” including the approval of the new “Water Code”, the increase of the drinking water tariff by 150 dime per CBM, improving the rate of water invoices, the increase of the water filtration invoice by 8% and the development of proposals on increasing the irrigation water tariff. Additionally, the Agence française de développement (AFD) signed a 33-million-Euro loan agreement with Tunisia for supporting the Second Water Sector Development Programme PISEAU II, its main objective being developing water grids in rural areas. To ensure the “sustainability of the project’s implications,” the AFD referred to the need to “complete the process of transferring state risk to end users and approval of proper tariffs.”

It seems that Tunisia is keen on positive interaction with its international partners’ concerns, more than it is sometimes expected. The Government increased the drinking water tariff twice, not once: the first in 2016 and the second in 2020. Until 2015, the SONEDE adopted a gradual tariff for consumption: the first 20 CBM for a “low” price, the second for a higher price, etc. The end user pays according to different tariffs. For example, if he consumes 30 CBM, he will pay the first 20 CBM at a low price and the additional 10 CBM at a higher price. Starting in 2016, firstly, the tariff of each consumption level was increased by 30%, and secondly the higher consumption level tariff was approved.

From Alaa Al-Marzouqi’s point of view, these increases are futile, and warns of the opposite effect: “When you know that you consumed 21 or 39 CBM, you will pay according to the higher tariff and it does not encourage you to save water, but you may consume more than usual.” Instead, he suggests that “the necessary quantity of drinking water should be provided free of charge, and a high tariff shall be applied to other consumptions”.

The highly questionable reform of the Water Code

The 1st Water Code was issued in 1975. Following the 2011 Revolution, there was talk (simultaneously with frequent statements of water poverty) of the need for developing legislations for managing water resources. In July 2019, the Government Council approved the Basic Law of Code Act and forwarded it to the Parliament, but to date it was not approved by parliament.

Many people are calling for the project to be reviewed or even abandoned. In order to understand the reasons for concern, we asked the experts and activists we approached. Habib Al-Ayeb said, “The Governmental Water Code does not recognize the unconditional right to water. Water should be an enforceable right for which the authorities should be accountable in case of default. It does not guarantee protection of water resources and maintaining them for future generations.”

Meanwhile, Alaa Al-Marzouqi elaborates, saying: “We demanded the establishment of the principle of the right to water and revising the chapters using the phrase ‘to the available capabilities’, in addition to the deletion of chapters expressly or impliedly calling for privatization of water, replacing water societies with a national agency for drinking water and sanitation in rural communities, the approval of water fingerprint as a standard against exhaustive agricultural policies, and approving the principle of polluter responsibility”. While Nageh Buqara concentrates on the issue of water possession and management: “The Water Code was based on the common possession philosophy, meaning that the state is the sole decision maker, which conflicts with ‘the water is a common good’ principle. This alienates civil society and water beneficiaries. The code reduces the official role to awarding franchise contracts, which would empower the lobbies’ influence.” While Dr. Hamza Al-Feel decided to address quality: “The Water Code was silent on quality culture and rationalization of consumption. It gave no significance to water quality and did not mention the word “quality” except when in reference to the classic manipulation of compatibility with standards. In return, Chapter 64 stipulates the publication of drinking water test results by the distributor, putting it under control, while it is silent on bottled water control. Additionally, it neglects the fate of treated used water if not compatible with standards (or completely polluted) that is dumped into nature. The act only addresses the preliminary theoretical study of the environmental footprint.”

It is noted here that a number of civil society organizations, following a discussion meeting, under the title “National Evaluation of Water and Legislative Framework,” held in Sousse in November 2019, decided to work jointly to develop the “National Water Code,” which was suggested at the initiative of the Tunisia Water Observatory (Nomad 08 Society).

The water problem cannot be addressed from a purely technical point of view and the figures and percentages should not be dealt as absolute scientific facts. The management of water and natural resources is a social and political concern: viewpoints, tests, behaviors and investments. When public authorities and international organizations exclusively address the water problem and exclude public opinion, local communities and civil society from actual discussions and joint management, it would worsen the water problems in Tunisia. Moreover, the forward escape policies instead of revisiting current policies would exacerbate issues in the upcoming years.

1Water Sectoral Report of 2019, issued by the Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture.