Water ban in drought-stricken Tunisia adds to growing crisis
Tunisia has introduced water rationing as the country suffers its fourth year of severe drought.
The state water distribution company, Sonede, has already begun cutting mains water supplies every night between 9pm and 4am. The agriculture ministry has now banned the use of water for irrigation, watering green spaces and other public areas, and for washing cars.
“I’ve been experiencing water cuts overnight for the last two or three weeks,” said Haythem Hazel, an English teacher in the capital, Tunis. “It’s alarming. It shows we really have a water crisis in Tunisia. It’s difficult to stay without water for even two hours.”.
Reservoirs across the country are said to be about 30% short of capacity. Levels at the Sidi Salem reservoir, which serves the north of the country, including Tunis, are only about 16% full.
Tunisia has always relied heavily on capturing surface water for its supplies, leaving it especially vulnerable to shortages of rainfall driven by the climate crisis. In the past four years, the Mediterranean region has had blistering summers, mild winters and relatively little rain.
It is estimated that temperatures across Tunisia will increase by up to 3.8C (6.8F) by 2050, while rainfall will decrease by at least 4% over the same period.
A network of ageing pipes is making the problem worse. According to project workers from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Tunis, leaks account for the loss of about 30% of the country’s water before it reaches a tap.
“Much of the infrastructure is very old, dating back to the 1950s,” said Imen Rais, WWF’s freshwater programme manager, “and it hasn’t really been maintained since the  revolution.”
Poor enforcement of planning regulations since the revolution has also affected both availability of water and quality. Unsanctioned housing and lack of infrastructure in poorer districts has led to the siphoning of groundwater through illegally dug wells and wastewater flowing directly into the water supply.
“This is as bad as we’ve seen,” said Jamel Jrijer, director for WWF North Africa. “This was predicted as far back as the 1970s but we’ve never really seen any action. Matters deteriorated after the revolution, where successive governments promised everything but did nothing.”
While water shortages will directly affect householders, the water ban for farmers, who account for about 75% of Tunisia’s water consumption, will be especially significant.
The drought will prove “disastrous”, a farmers union official, Mohamed Rjaibia, told Reuters last week, when rationing was announced. This year’s grain crop is already predicted to be only a third of last year’s, at 200,000–250,000 tonnes compared with 750,000 tonnes in 2022. The agriculture sector contributes about 10% of the country’s annual GDP.
The government is considering digging wells, desalinating seawater and recycling wastewater, but there is little chance of escaping the worst of the crisis before the summer.
Tunisia is already reeling from a weak economy, high unemployment and rising living costs, and there are fears the water cuts could further stoke social unrest. In February, demonstrators took to the streets after President Kais Saied accused undocumented migrants of a plot to dilute Tunisia’s Arab identity. The comments were widely viewed as an attempt by Saied to distract attention from the country’s economic woes.
The government is still negotiating a bailout plan with the International Monetary Fund, which is understood to include curtailing the country’s entrenched subsidy system, which manages the prices of household staples, such as coffee, bread and grains.
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