Photograph: Fethi Belaid AFP for GETTY IMAGES
Struggling with extremism and a faltering economy, Tunisia is now up against persistent drought across several regions that is creating new social tensions and threatening farming, a pillar of the economy.
Farmland is too parched to cultivate crops, and rural protesters have tried disrupting water supplies to the capital, while one legislator called for a “thirst revolt.” A lack of rain, combined with years of bad resource management, has left reservoirs and dams at exceptionally low levels that could lead to a “catastrophic situation,” said Saad Seddik, who was agriculture minister until last month.
With municipal water supplies periodically cut off, residents of some towns are walking several miles to fetch water from public fountains, loading up donkeys with water canisters — if there’s any water left. “We come here twice a day, first early in the morning before the dam becomes agitated and dangerous. But what we fetch in the morning isn’t enough, so we repeat the trip in the afternoon,” said Hadiya Farhani from the town of Sbikha in the central Kairouan region. But, he said, even that’s not enough to clean the house or wash clothes.
Fellow resident Samir Farhani said the government is concentrating on fighting terrorism “while forgetting that thirst could make us turn into terrorists.” Tunisia endured two major Islamic extremist attacks last year that targeted tourists, and the country sees sporadic violence and threats from the Islamic State militant group in Libya and other radical groups in the region.
“We are thirsty. Give us water. We don’t need work, just water,” Samir Farhani pleaded.
Since its Arab Spring revolution in 2011, Tunisia has had a string of governments that have concentrated on fighting extremism and corruption and building a democracy after years of autocracy.
Construction is underway on nine new reservoirs and three desalination plants, but water management has not been a top government priority. In one recent government response, the minister of religious affairs asked imams to pray for rain. Most of Tunisia’s water goes to farming, and drought-related agricultural losses are estimated at $905 million this year, according to the Tunisian Agriculture and Fishing Union. The grain industry alone was expected to lose $359 million for the 2015-2016 season, it said.
Debts are piling up, and water reserves are down nearly a third from recent historical levels, according to the union. A tomato and potato farmer in Bkalta in the Monastir region, Anis Zouita, normally plants at this time of year but fears he won’t be able to irrigate. That could lead to a shortage of produce and higher prices for consumers.
“We are stuck. We need water for this agricultural season,” he said.
He said climate change, and the lack of a long-term government water strategy for the arid country on the edge of the Sahara, are to blame. Prolonged droughts are among many extreme weather phenomena that climate scientists say are becoming more frequent because of man-made carbon dioxide pollution.
The World Bank warned in 2009 that Tunisia was among countries in the region facing water-resource risks. Tunisia has long had water problems, but what’s unusual this time is that regions across the country, from north to south, are being hit.
The drought also is worsening social tensions, already simmering because of chronic unemployment.
The town of Fernana has experienced weeks of unrest since a young man set himself on fire in desperation — mirroring a similar act in 2010 that unleashed the Arab Spring protests that overthrew Tunisia’s president. This time, the Fernana protesters took out their anger at the establishment by converging on nearby dams and briefly cutting off water supplies to the capital, Tunis.
In another town, Mateur, 42 miles from Tunis, protesters angry over a lack of water blocked a road for two days earlier this month and burned tires. Police cleared their roadblock, but water cutoffs continue.
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