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Tunisian Research Seeks to Counter Climate Threats

TUNIS—The unprecedented extremes of weather that have taken place in Tunisia and across North Africa over the past two years have increased the interest of researchers in studying the causes of climate change and ways of dealing with it.

Tunisia and the region have been witnessing unusually high temperatures during the summer and a lack of rainfall in winter, which is taking a toll on agriculture and posing threats to food security, water resources, health and infrastructure, according to researchers.

“Study indicators show changes in the Mediterranean climate,” said Zuhair el-Hallaoui, a professor of geography and climate sciences and a climate change specialist at the 9 Avril University of Tunis.

“There is a steady increase in temperature and a constant decrease in the rate of rainfall,” said el-Hallaoui, who is also head of the Climate Change Society, a nongovernmental organization. “This means there is a need to find new sources of drinking water and the water required for agriculture.”

Over the past summer, Tunisia experienced unprecedented hot weather. On July 14, the temperature was 49.3 degrees Celsius in Tozeur governorate (120.7 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the National Institute of Meteorology, and a heat wave when temperatures were higher than 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) lasted for more than 28 days. In previous years, such heat waves usually lasted no more than 14 days.

This summer’s heat wave was accompanied by heavy rainfall that caused unprecedented floods in northern cities such as Siliana and Bizerte.

These events added to researchers’ concerns about the future effects of climate change, as global warming causes temperatures to climb and sea levels to rise. A scarcity of freshwater for drinking and agriculture, meanwhile, is expected to get worse. (See a related article, “Researchers See Water at Root of Tunisia’s Inequality Problem.”)

Tunisia’s Ministry of Local Affairs and Environment has predicted that sea levels will rise by 30 to 50 centimeters (about 12 to 20 inches) by 2050, causing beaches to shrink or vanish and subjecting large areas of built-up zones along the coast to flooding by the encroaching water.

“A number of islands and coastal cities will be flooded as a result, in areas such as Kerkennah and Djerba islands and cities in the northeast, where most of the economic and tourist facilities and thousands of communities are located,” el-Hallaoui said.

Researchers have suggested a variety of ways for adapting to the expected environmental changes, including taking steps to make water use more efficient and looking for alternative sources.

For example, el-Hallaoui calls for returning to traditional architectural forms of Arab houses, which had courtyards with tanks for collecting rainwater.

“Architecture students should be involved now in plans for confronting climate change, so they can study the quality and shape of the buildings we need in sites threatened by flooding,” he said.

Climate change will also require reconsidering the types of crops grown in agricultural areas of Tunisia.  Areas now allocated for wheat cultivation, for example, are expected to decline by 20 percent by 2050, according to the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies.

Zuhair el-Hallaoui, a climate change specialist at the 9 Avril University of Tunis (Photo: Ibtissem Jamel).

The country needs 4,845 million cubic meters of water each year but can only supply 4,503 million cubic meters, leaving it with a deficit of 275 million cubic meters. Agriculture is the most water-consuming sector, using 3,600 million cubic meters a year, according to Samir El Tayeb, the minister of agriculture.

“There are types of plants that are compatible with water shortages and high temperatures,” said el-Hallaoui. “An agricultural strategy that coexists with water scarcity should be adopted by expanding drip irrigation methods and educating farmers in modern farming methods and the plants they need to avoid.”

At the regional level, academics from Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco launched last month a network of researchers and experts on climate change, alternative water sources and renewable energy sources to coordinate efforts and work together to address climate change in their countries.

“Climate change is definitely coming and we must prepare for confrontation,” said el-Hallaoui. “Regional action is necessary to bring about change.”

The scholars’ suggestions received a favorable response from the Tunisian government. Recently, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that it was preparing a National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change to ensure food security and protect against other effects of global warming, in cooperation with a number of researchers and climate experts.

On the civil level, Raj Tunisie, a youth organization, launched an interactive online platform called the Green Climate Forum to raise awareness about the most important environmental issues in Tunisia and to monitor the country’s commitment to putting in place mechanisms that comply with international conventions related to climate and the environment.

“Government action seems incomplete amid the lack of direct implementation mechanisms,” said Amna Fourati, the network’s coordinator. “Moreover, universities should play the biggest role in research.”

Tunisia’s engineering schools are teaching about climate change within their curricula, but lack courses dedicated to the topic. There is still no separate specialization in environmental engineering, according to el-Hallaoui.

Fourati believes there is a missing link between the efforts of researchers and students in academic institutions and government policies.

“We are trying to organize a forum that brings together university researchers, government officials and journalists interested in climate change to propose ways to develop and apply research to save time, effort and funding,” she said.


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