Drought grips farms in Tunisia

Sunday 25/09/2016
The Sidi Salem dam near Testour, in Tunisia’s north-west Beja region, which has particularly low water levels due to a 30% drop in rainfall in the North African country this year.

Oued Zargua - Mohamed Boukhari kicked repeatedly at the earth under his foot as dust whipped across the toasted soil that used to be under several metres of water of Tunisia’s biggest dam.
“The water never ebbed that way at Sidi Salem dam. The water you see now there is a drop compared to the normal huge volume of the dam. I have not seen that in 35 years since it came on stream,” said Boukhari, 65.
Fishermen used to ply the wa­ter on small boats and Boukhari said he used to sell fish on the side of the road in the village of Oued Zargua, 400 metres from the dam, which is about 90km from Tunis.
Not a single boat was in sight on this day and Boukhari is now forced to collect plastic water bot­tles on the roadside instead of sell­ing fish to travellers.
“It is sorrowful that silence com­ing from the dam. You could hear birds and fishermen singing or call­ing one another when the water was plenty,” he said.
The Sidi Salem reservoir has a ca­pacity of 555 million cubic metres covering more than 4,300 hectares with water levels reaching up to 57 metres.
The diminishing water in Sidi Salem is leaving many villages and areas around the dam and beyond struggling through a prolonged and deepening drought.
“It’s a huge time of uncertain­ty,” said Ali Trabelsi, a 49-year old farmer. His irrigated land of 25 hec­tares near Goubellat, a small town 40km south of the dam, depends on the water from the Sidi Salem reservoir.
The drought has hurt Trabelsi and other farmers and is having a cascading effect on the agricultural community.
“I planted 15 hectares of potatoes and tomatoes counting on the wa­ter from Sidi Salem as usual but the authorities are allocating us only supply for three hectares. I had to sacrifice the 12 hectares by stop­ping to water that acreage,” he said.
“They can be saved if the rains come in the next few days. Their fate is in the hands of God.”
“Imagine my loss, for others and for the country,” Trabelsi said. “I used to earn 2,000 dinars ($905) from each hectare. Each hectare needs 200 days of work. Fami­lies feed their children from such work.”
“A catastrophe is looming if God is not merciful and the rains do not fall in the coming ten days or so,” Trabelsi said as he pointed to parched farms around him that would usually be green with crops this time of the year.
“The authorities are cutting wa­ter supply to the farmers because of the drought,” said his neighbour, 37-year-old Amer Dridi.
“Water allocations are being slashed for farmers because of the water shortage,” said Dridi, add­ing that “the only hope is that rain comes. If it does, we might be out of the woods”.
Civic association the Watchwa­ter warned in August that Tunisia could face a “thirst uprising” mod­elled on the protest movement that jolted the country for weeks before the overthrow of president Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
“The failure to find urgent and serious solutions will increase pro­tests across the country,” it said as residents in the central region of Kairouan and other provinces in the interior blocked roads to high­light their suffering from water cuts.
Nebhana dam in Kairouan has dried up completely as has Siliana dam in the north.
The Agriculture Ministry warned in August that the country would be facing a “catastrophic” situa­tion from the extreme weather if it did not rain early in September. The few rainstorms that did mate­rialise were not enough to replen­ish groundwater reserves or res­ervoirs, Tunisia’s main source of water.
“If rain does not come by the end of September, we will have to tap the dam’s strategic reserves and that’s a very dangerous situation,” Sidi Salem dam manager Cherif Gasmi said.
Groundwater levels in areas without dams have fallen as much as 25%, according to the govern­ment-run water utility Sonede.
The government has pledged measures, including speeding up several dam projects and the con­struction of three desalination plants in the south but that could be of little immediate help to the more than 700 towns and villages that government officials said suf­fered water cuts since mid-May.
More than 18 towns and villages in the coastal provinces of Mona­stir and Mahdia suffered cuts of more than 14 hours on September 20th and 21st, according to a state­ment from Sonede.
The water crisis has been brew­ing since the summer of 2013 when the Tunis area, with a population of 2.5 million people, witnessed the first cuts in water supply.
Tunisia is one of the nations in the Mediterranean basin with the least water, according to World Bank data.
The water issue is only likely to become more dire. Studies indicate that Tunisia can expect average an­nual temperatures rising 2 degrees Celsius, with likely more frequent extreme weather trends such as more flooding and more droughts.
Tunisia had planned under Ben Ali’s government to add 14 dams to be linked with the existing 13 dams by 2015 but the successive govern­ments since 2011 have yet to focus on the issue as they have been hin­dered by the lack of stability and an unclear economic strategy, experts said.