Tunisia’s Thirst Uprising: A Nation on the Edge

tunisia_dennis_jarvis_metlaoui_seija-1030x713Photograph: Dennis Jarvis on Flickr

In Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring was born, and where many believe the Arab Spring brought about the most positive change, Tunisians are still self- immolating in protest after nearly five-years of Nobel winning democratic reforms  . This September saw at least two men—one a farm worker in Regueb , and another, a café owner from Fernana—set themselves ablaze to protest their desperate economic situations 

While the farm worker survived thanks to a quick intervention by onlookers, the café owner, Wissem Nasri , died from his injuries on September 12 after several days in intensive care. Mr. Nasri had a long-running dispute with the local government over serving hookahs without a proper license. When the government refused to renegotiate the fines that would essentially put him out of business, he saw no other way to move forward with his cafe and self-immolated outside a municipal building on September 7.

After his death, the residents of Fernana, a small town about 170km west of Tunis, took to the streets in protest, setting tires ablaze and disrupting traffic flows. But, it wasn’t until the angry mob closed in on the Jantoura pumping station , which supplies the capital and many other regions with fresh water, that government officials took notice of the protest, sending in reinforcements to keep the water flowing in Tunis.

This wasn’t the first time that water has played a role in civil unrest in Tunisia. According to Professor Mohamed  Larbi  Bouguerra, an associate director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the epicenter of Tunisia’s Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, lies in the middle of a water stressed region. “It was in the territories the most disadvantaged in terms of water, that the Tunisia revolution began,” Bouguerra wrote in early 2015 .

Cycles of Surplus and Drought

Tunisia is one of the driest countries along the Mediterranean. This year’s long dry, hot summer has all but exhausted the nation’s water reserves. According to reports, the nation’s rainfall is 28 percent below average for the year  , and farmers have already lost nearly $US 2 million in agricultural goods  .

Summer-long protests throughout the country were called a “thirst uprising ” by the international press, as local residents fought for access to ever dwindling water supplies. Ironically, access to freshwater is a new right guaranteed in the revised post-Arab Spring constitution. Despite this, many poor and rural Tunisians are still facing significant water shortages.

To understand the water shortages and water conflicts in Tunisia, you have to first understand the country’s geography. In the northwest, surface water reigns supreme, with small rivers and a series of reservoirs and dams supplying most of the country with fresh water.

But, the reservoirs run dry near the end of August and September each year, as the summer comes to an end, and the nation’s north must patiently wait for the October rains to return.

Indeed, the nation’s water resources are divided both geographically and temporally, as rain cycles bring periods of surplus and drought each year to the north, while the south enjoys groundwater from deep wells in the midst of a near total surface desert. Even with these wells fresh water in the south is scarce, as many of the shallower aquifers are too brackish for human or agricultural consumption. And among the deeper wells that provide fresh potable water, there is concern that they will someday run dry, with 43 percent known to be nonrenewable.

The government, both in its pre-revolution form, and it’s current configuration, has responded to this uneven distribution of water wealth by favoring the coastal regions and urban centers, like Tunis, while cutting water to rural and poorer interior regions first. In the 2016 summer season, for example, water was reportedly cut from rural areas while taps were kept on in the richer touristic north.

The cycle of surplus and drought has repeated each year in the region since at least the Byzantine Empire, and so the nation has a long history of water storage and water management know how. But, modern cycles of drought have gotten longer in the region, with climate change threatening to bring even more dry weather to the northern Maghreb.

According to the World Resources Institute , Tunisia will be among the most water-stressed countries in the world by 2040. In the water stressed present, and the very water stressed future, planning will be paramount to preventing both a humanitarian crisis in Tunisia, and a water fueled revolution.

But Professor Bouguerra isn’t too optimistic about the current state of affairs, telling Al-Monitor, “Nothing has been done to address the problem. It has not been anticipated.” And many have observed that while the current government has been more open about the water shortages, a suitable solution has yet to be found. Pray for rain has been the government’s main response.

For now the long summer is coming to an end and the rains have started to return to northern Tunisia. It will take sometime before the reservoirs return to capacity, after months of drought and over consumption. So, while the threat of water related protests wanes in the winter months, the next cycle of drought and shortfalls remains just around the corner.