On Sept. 12, the people of Fernana — a small town located in northwestern Tunisia — gathered at the pumping station that supplies water to Tunis and threatened to cut off the supply to the capital, before security forces intervened and prevented them from doing so. This came in response to the death of Wissem Nasri, a cafe owner who set himself on fire outside the municipality building following a dispute with its general secretary because he could not obtain permission to serve shishas to his clients.
Nasri’s suicide — reminiscent of Mohamed Bouazizi's in Sidi Bouzid, whose self-immolation marked the beginning of the Tunisian revolution in December 2010 — provoked strikes and demonstrations in the city of Fernana. In a TV report aired Sept. 8, a resident of Fernana denounces the marginalization of his town, including the lack of access to water, although the region registers the most rainfall in the country and provides drinking water for most of the northern half of Tunisia.
Since the beginning of July, repeated water cuts in several regions of Tunisia sparked anger and protests among the local population. Water shortages were reported in towns such as Sousse, Nabeul, Sfax, Kef, Siliana, Beja, Sidi Bouzid, Ben Arous, Medenine and Tataouine. Given the increasing number of protests, the Tunisian citizen’s water observatory, Watchwater, warned against a possible “thirst uprising” in a statement released Aug. 10.
On July 28, then-Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries Saad Seddik — who was replaced by Samir Bettaieb after a change of government at the end of August — said at a press conference that Tunisia had suffered a rainfall deficit of 28% compared to 2015, and that this had negatively impacted the filling of dams in the north of the country. He also said Tunisians were living “below the water poverty line” — as defined by the United Nations — which is 1,000 cubic meters (roughly 264,000 gallons) per person, against 460 cubic meters (roughly 121,500 gallons) per person in Tunisia.
Recalling that the right to water is guaranteed by Article 44 of the new Tunisian Constitution, Watchwater asked in its Aug. 10 statement for the hearing of the minister of agriculture and of SONEDE (National Company of Water Exploitation and Distribution) before parliament, insisting on their responsibilities in the management and distribution of water. “We call on the representatives of the people … to exercise their right to question the company and the ministry concerned,” said the organization. But their request was not accepted.
The observatory has been mapping all water supply-related incidents in Tunisia since March. “Since we launched the platform, we have been collecting 739 alerts,” Ala Marzougui, the coordinator of Watchwater, told Al-Monitor.
Marzougui comes from Redeyef, a phosphate mining area in southwest Tunisia. He said, “In Redeyef, we have been undergoing for long years repeated shortages. The last water cut here was in early September and lasted for four days. But all Tunisian regions suffer from cuts, even in winter. Maybe it has been catching more attention from the media this summer because of the touristic places being affected.”
For his part, Larbi Bouguerra, a former professor at Tunis University's faculty of science and the author of the essay "Water under Threat," told Al-Monitor, “We all know that rainfall is erratic in the Mediterranean and that there are episodes of five to six years of drought.”
He said, “Nothing has been done to address the problem. It has not been anticipated. On the other hand, water is wasted in Tunisia. We no longer use the traditional techniques that once existed to collect water, like the rainwater tanks."
Bouguerra insisted, “The previous governments under Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, favored the coast. They drained all the water from the north of Tunisia to the Sahel region and the tourist cities.”
In a series of articles published in 2015 about water and the Arab Spring, Bouguerra wrote, “The Tunisian revolution began in the most disadvantaged areas in terms of access to water.”
Marzougui added, “We can see that the regions most affected by water cuts — such as Gafsa, Jendouba, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Kairouan — also suffer the most marginalization, unemployment, lack of infrastructure and lack of access to health care."
However, on Aug. 12, two weeks after his press conference about drought and the water scarcity most Tunisians experience, Seddik said in a radio interview that the government had decided to “give priority to the tourist areas” for supply of clean water.
According to the World Resources Institute, Tunisia will be one of the most water-stressed countries in 2040. In 2014, the World Bank described “water scarcity” as a “development challenge” for Tunisia, dealing with climate change, urbanization and growing demands from industry and agriculture.
“It is true that there exists overexploitation and water pollution,” said Habib Ayeb, a Tunisian geographer, researcher and associate professor at the University of Paris 8 who focuses his research on marginalization, water and social change.
He told Al-Monitor, “The most important thing is the right to access to water. It is a matter of inequality and injustice. The real problem for me is: Who has the right to access to water and what is the water used for?”
In 2013, at the time when the 2014 constitution was drafted, Ayeb was one of those asking for the right to water to be defined as a legally enforceable right, “which means the possibility for the people who are not connected to the clean water system to take legal action against the state and to obtain financial compensation,” he said. “But the proposal wasn’t adopted. The right to water is enshrined in the constitution but has not been defined.”
While Ayeb insisted he cannot “predict the future,” he also said, “Assuming the revolution was caused by social demands, water could be the reason for a new uprising. The only thing I know is that there is a growing awareness. During the dictatorship, there already were water cuts, but nobody talked about it. And I think that as long as we keep the same water governance model the problem will remain."