Water shortage in Tunisia estimated at 16 billion cubic metres (FTDES)

Tunis: The shortage of water resources in Tunisia is estimated at around 16 billion cubic metres, according to the annual report published on April 1 by the Environment and Climate Justice Department of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

The Forum said “the dams’ fill rate, according to the National Observatory of Agriculture, reached 22% of the total capacity of dams by November 12, 2023, i.e. 524 thousand cubic metres, in addition to 2.2 of groundwater, i.e. a total of approximately 3 billion cubic metres. In theory, Tunisia needs 19 billion cubic metres to meet its needs in various sectors. This means that there is a shortage of almost 16 billion cubic metres.

A third of Tunisia’s water is lost

According to the FTDES, there are several reasons for this shortage. First and foremost is the phenomenon of waste. Dams lose around 22 million cubic metres of storage capacity every year due to sedimentation and poor maintenance, especially those supplying drinking water, such as the Sidi
el-Barrak dam, which, according to the General Directorate of Dams and Water Works, has lost around 3.5 billion cubic metres of water to the sea since it was built in 2002.

In addition, the percentage of water wasted in the networks of the national company for the exploitation and distribution of water is estimated at more than 24% and can reach 30% in certain areas due to the age and wear of the network, to which must be added the large amount of sediment. ‘If we also take into account illegal connections and water theft, which can sometimes reach 8%, a third of Tunisia’s water is lost.’

The FTDES also explained the water shortage by the significant decrease in rainfall over the last five years, from 208.6 mm in the 2018-2019 season to 165.7 mm in 2022-2023.

Changes in water use also partly explain the water shortage. Average annual water use in Tunisia is estimated at 36 billion m3 (agriculture 77%, industry 8%, tourism 1.5% and drinking water 13.5%). In addition, the share of groundwater in Tunisia is e
stimated at 2.165 billion cubic metres, which is exploited in various sectors through the granting of exploitation permits. The rate of exploitation has increased from 698 billion m3 in 1990 to 914 billion m3 in 2020.

The exploitation of deep underground resources has increased by 14.5%, from 117% in 2017 to 134% in 2020, through authorised wells, but above all through illegal wells, the number of which exceeds the number of legal wells and represents a real threat to water resources.

The FTDES said the significant depletion of water through illegal wells is the result of insufficient control by farmers and industrialists, as well as the weakness of dissuasive measures against offenders, despite the existence of numerous laws prohibiting unauthorised drilling, in particular Article 13 of the Water Code.

The Forum believes that the water crisis in Tunisia is the result of the recurrence of policies and choices relating to the water sector over the years.

“The adoption of an agricultural model that supports
water-consuming crops such as citrus fruits, tomatoes and watermelons, and the gradual abandonment of cereal crops, has led to the serious social and economic consequences we are experiencing today, in the form of a shortage of drinking water and significant inflation in the price of agricultural produce, threatening food security in Tunisia”.

It added that “throughout history, the various civilisations in Tunisia have adapted to the nature of the climate through ingenious hydraulic infrastructures such as the Fesquias and Mejels, or by using aqueducts such as those at Zaghouan, as well as water-saving agricultural techniques.

However, with the current development model in place since the mid-1980s, pressure on resources has increased due to support for water-hungry agriculture and water-intensive industries, such as the textile washing industry, where washing just one pair of trousers requires more water than the average daily consumption of an individual.

This is also the case for support to the tourism
sector in coastal regions, where water interruptions are frequent for households, while the supply of water to hotels continues at a normal rate”.

In conclusion, the FTDES affirmed that “the water crisis in Tunisia is not simply a crisis of drought and lack of resources, but also a crisis of development model and failing political choices”.

Source: Agence Tunis Afrique Presse