‘We are thirsty’ say Tunisians as drought creates tensions

Persistent drought across several regions in Tunisia is creating new social tensions and threatening farming

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Struggling with extremism and economic woes, Tunisia now faces another menace: persistent drought across several regions that is creating new social tensions and threatening farming, a pillar of the economy.

Farmland is too parched to cultivate crops and rural protesters have tried disrupting water supplies to the capital, while one legislator is calling for a “thirst revolt.”

A lack of rain, combined with years of bad resource management, has left reservoirs and dams at exceptionally low levels that could lead to a “catastrophic situation,” said Saad Seddik, who was agriculture minister until last month.

With municipal water supplies periodically cut off, residents of some towns are walking several kilometers (miles) to fetch water from public fountains, loading up donkeys with water canisters - if there's any left.

“We come here twice a day, first early in the morning before the dam becomes agitated and dangerous. But what we fetch in the morning isn't enough. So we repeat the trip in the afternoon,” but it's still not enough to clean the house or wash clothes, said Hadiya Farhani from the town of Sbikha in the central Kairouan region.

Fellow resident Samir Farhani says the government is concentrating on fighting terrorism “while forgetting that thirst could make us turn into terrorists.” Tunisia suffered two major Islamic extremist attacks last year targeting tourists and sees sporadic violence and threats from the Islamic State group in Libya and other radical groups in the region.

“We are thirsty. Give us water, we don't need work, just water,” he pleaded.

Tunisia has had a string of governments since its Arab Spring revolution in 2011 that have concentrated on fighting extremism and corruption and building a democracy after years of autocracy.

Construction is under way on nine new reservoirs and three desalination plants, but water resource management has not been a top government priority. One recent government response: The minister of religious affairs asked imams to hold prayers for rain.

Most of Tunisia's water goes to farming, and drought-related agricultural losses are estimated at 2 billion dinars ($905 million) this year, according to the Tunisian Agriculture and Fishing Union. The grain industry alone is expected to lose 793 million dinars ($359 million) for the 2015/2016 season, it said.

Debts are piling up, and water reserves are down nearly a third from recent historical levels, according to the union.

A tomato and potato farmer in Bkalta in the Monastir region, Anis Zouita, normally plants this time of year but fears he won't be able to irrigate. That could lead to a shortage of produce and higher prices for consumers.

“We are stuck. We need water for this agricultural season,” he said.

He says climate change, and the lack of a long-term government water strategy for this arid country on the edge of the Sahara, are to blame. Prolonged droughts are among many extreme weather phenomena that climate scientists say are becoming more frequent because of man-made carbon dioxide pollution.

The World Bank warned in 2009 that Tunisia was among countries in the region facing water resource risks. Tunisia has long had water issues, but what's unusual this time is that regions across the country, from north to south, are being hit.

The drought is also worsening social tensions, already simmering because of chronic unemployment.

The town of Fernana has seen weeks of unrest since a young man set himself on fire in desperation - mirroring a similar act in 2010 that unleashed the Arab Spring protests that overthrew Tunisia's president. This time, the Fernana protesters took out their anger at the establishment by converging on nearby dams and briefly cutting off water supplies to the capital, Tunis.

In another town, Mateur, 70 kilometers (42 miles) from Tunis, protesters angry over a lack of water blocked a road for two days earlier this month and burned tires. Police cleared their roadblock, but water cutoffs continue.

Lawmaker Faycal Tebbini, head of the Farmers' Voice political party, accuses national authorities of mismanaging the country's water supplies and wants a “thirst revolt.” He says about 5 billion cubic meters of water flow into the sea every year that could be diverted for farming and residential use, and that 30 percent of water in reservoirs is lost because of leaks in damaged pipes.

He and other rural residents say government attention and water supplies are focused too heavily on richer areas such as the capital and tourist resorts along the Mediterranean coast, while leaving the interior - and its farms that feed Tunisians - parched.

“How can you explain that the Jendouba region, which has large reservoirs, is suffering from thirst? So badly that the No. 1 request from the region's residents is to have a mouthful of water to drink,” he said.

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