Once considered one of Tunisia’s food baskets, producing abundant olive, orange, watermelon and tomato crops, Sidi Mahmoud is slowly turning into desert. Water scarcity has driven many farmers away from the area. Most have lost all of their income. Many have sold their farming equipment to feed their families, others have left for neighboring cities or even headed overseas in search of new livelihoods.

Our crops don’t yield anything anymore because of the ongoing drought in the region, so I had to give up farming. I drive a cab now. I moved with my family to the center of Kairouan

says Chaker Sibri, a former farmer from Sidi Mahmoud.

Like neighboring North African countries, Tunisia has a long history of coping with water scarcity. “The Roman aqueduct and canal network built in the second century are works that testify how far back the water shortage problem stretches in Tunisia”, notes Dr. Hassane Mouri, a sociologist specializing in the environment and development. But the impacts of climate change and the country’s agricultural policies dating back to its independence have exacerbated the water issue.

Since 1956, Tunisia has primarily used surface water capture techniques, even though the country’s rainfall is characterized by high inter-annual variation and poor spatial distribution. In  2020, average rainfall was 36km3  (with rainfall levels varying between 1,500 mm in the northern regions to less than 100mm in the south) according to the Ministry of Agriculture; only 2 to 3km3 were captured. Water resources and development remain largely dependent on rain. Tunisia also suffers from a regional imbalance in available water resources. While the country’s northern regions enjoy 80% of surface water resources, the South claims a mere 5% of surface water.

Renewable water resource availability today amounts to 420 m3 per year per inhabitant, which is below the absolute water scarcity threshold of 1000m3 (Food and Agriculture Organization, AQUASTAT data 2018). If no major changes occur in the coming years, water resources are expected to continue to decrease, and may fall to 150m3 by 2050.

Agriculture and  irrigation: the largest water consumers

Like many other Middle Eastern and African countries, Tunisia has for decades pushed farmers to specialize in industrial crops for exportation. Most of these crops—strawberries, tomatoes, melons—are very high water consumers. This specialized agriculture has replaced traditional production which was dedicated to feeding the local population.

Surface water resources in Tunisia are burdened by problems of both quantity and quality. Because of the multi-year drought and general rainfall variability over the last decade, as well as global warming and poor maintenance of an aging infrastructure, the quantity and quality of usable water flowing through Tunisia’s large dams is only half of what it should be. According to the National Agriculture Observatory (ONAGRI, 2015), the salinity of about half of the country’s water (53%) is greater than 1.5 grams, while 35% of water has a salinity above 2 grams. Since the Tunisian revolution, thousands of wells have been dug illegally, leading to an overexploitation of the water table and worsened quality of available water.