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Researchers See Water at Root of Tunisia’s Inequality Problem

BÉJA GOVERNORATE, Tunisia—A couple of hours drive inland from the cosmopolitan capital of Tunis sits Medjez El Bab, a provincial town that has relied on income from agriculture since Roman times.

The surrounding hills are still packed with fields of wheat and other crops like watermelon, but times are getting harder for the region’s farmers, and poor water management is to blame, says Hatem Jemmali, a social economist at Manouba University who studies inequality and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.

The summer months are getting hotter in Tunisia; the average temperature in July between the years of 1991 and 2015 was 2.3 degrees Celsius warmer than it was 90 years earlier, according to data from the World Bank.

Rainfall is also increasingly difficult to predict; it varies greatly from year to year. For example, according to another dataset from the World Bank, the amount of rainfall Tunisia received in 2002 was 98 percent lower than it was in the following year.

Tunisia is not unusual among North African and Middle Eastern countries in facing this problem. Countries throughout the region suffer from water scarcity, which is expected to get worse as a result of climate change.

The shortage of water in Tunisia’s interior is reducing crop yields and therefore farmers’ profit margins, which is bad news for the area as a whole because farming is the bedrock of the regional economy. Jemmali argues that water scarcity is widening the economic gap between the country’s relatively wealthy coastal zones and the more deprived inland governorates.

In a recent study, Jemmali used data from two national surveys to map the prospects of children under 18 in Tunisia. He looked at primary school attendance, secondary school attendance and the probability of completing education on time. On the face of it, the results show an improving situation when considering the country as a whole, but there are increasing inequalities between regions within Tunisia—the interior is lagging behind.

In an earlier research paper, Jemmali used a metric that combines data on economic welfare and access to water. His results show that the distribution of what is known as “water poverty” is more common inland than along the coast, even though the interior gets more rain.

“There is significant regional inequality and I think it was one of the causes of the 2011 revolution,” says Jemmali. “People openly talk about a second revolution here.”

Other experts agree that water scarcity has a serious economic impact on rural Tunisians.

Hatem Jemmali and Omar Nasi at a human-made lake in Tunisia’s interior
(Photo: Benjamin Plackett).

Haithem Bahri, a researcher at the National Research Institute for Agricultural Engineering, Water and Forestry in Tunis, estimates that farmers of wheat and grain in Tunisia only get 10 to 20 percent of the yield that they could achieve if water, among other things, was better managed.

“We need to better manage rainfall collection,” says Bahri.

In the countryside just outside of Medjez El Bab, Jemmali’s friend Omar Nasi points to a small artificial lake.

Nasi is a domestic water network supervisor for the National Society for Water Exploitation and Distribution in Tunisia—it’s his job to make sure water gets to people’s homes in this part of the country.

The lake was created by building a small stone barrier in a valley between two hills to catch the rainwater runoff, which provides some relief for the nearby water-stressed fields.

“I would like the government to build these lakes everywhere and more dams too,” says Nasi.

Jemmali and Nasi would also like the government to invest in better water-management infrastructure for farmers. At a farm closer to the town, the pair point out a field of watermelons with plastic piping running alongside the crop. The piping is used to drip feed water—usually at night when evaporation is lower. The roots are also covered in plastic to keep the soil as moist as possible.

“This kind of drip-fed irrigation reduces the amount of water wasted by agriculture because it’s very precise,” says Nasi.

“But it’s not cheap,” says Jemmali, “and most farmers can’t afford to install it.”

An artificial lake in rural Tunisia (Photo:Benjamin Plackett).

Back in Tunis, Bahri stresses that water isn’t the only problem. Rainfall being equal, his computer models still show that harvests in Tunisia can be four to five times smaller than those of other countries, says Bahri.

In addition to better water management, there are other things that farmers could do to boost their harvest, says Bahri. For example, if more farmers changed the crops they grow in their fields each year, it would be harder for pest populations to establish themselves.

Farmers could also be better educated to get the most out of their infrastructure, he adds. “Those with drip irrigation don’t time it right, it’s often just constantly dripping.”

Properly addressing the water problems in Tunisia should be one of the government’s top priorities, says Jemmali. “If you reduce poverty it will tackle so many other problems,” he says. “Poverty is linked to violence, education problems and health.”


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